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The Hidden Health Gap That Crushes Communities of Color

Millions of Americans of color are secretly, and disproportionately, suffering the effects of a difficult disease.

As April comes to a close, most of us are reeling from the whirlwind of big milestones the month brings, from Tax Day to the100 other deadlines and observances that deserve our attention. In the shuffle, it can be easy to miss the hashtags and conversations that go along with these important dates.

But noting one observance, National Minority Health Month, could have a tangible result we can’t afford to ignore. Across the country, millions of families of color struggle with disproportionate health disparities that disrupt their daily lives. They likely didn’t see the tweets and Facebook posts that federal agencies like theDepartment of Health and Human Services use to mark the month. But statistics show that they are living the reality that these tweets discuss.

The result of biology and discriminatory policies, health disparities in communities of color have endured since their early documentation by leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois andBooker T. Washington.

Recent efforts have addressed the issue. The Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion drove a reduction in the uninsured rate for all major racial and ethnic groups between 2013 to 2014. And disparities in vaccine rates among children of color have been eliminated through tailored public health efforts.

But the health gap persists, and one of our nation’s most pressing public health challenges goes overlooked in our national conversation: Alzheimer’s, a progressive brain disease impacting over 5 million Americans. African Americans are twice as likely, and Latinos are 1.5 times more likely than white people to develop Alzheimer’s or a related form of dementia.

Despite this disparate impact, Alzheimer’s is rarely included in public awareness campaigns and action plans on health disparities developed by policy makers and health professionals. In fact, the nation’s third-leading cause of death is omitted completely from the HHS Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic HealthDisparities and the 2015 Kelly Report: Health Disparities in America, a report prepared by the Congressional Black Caucus. While the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) includes decreasing disparities as a goal, it falls short of offering concrete strategies or milestones for doing so. From East Los Angeles to Atlanta, a combination of ageism, low-levels of public awareness and stigma have allowed the disease to thrive in the shadows.

As our nation grows older and more diverse, this issue is not just about public awareness, it is about public health. By 2030, the Administration on Aging projects that minorities will make up close to 30 percent of the older adult population in the US. While longevity should be an asset to our communities and economy, it could prove deadly for Latino and African American families, as the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s doubles about every five years after age 65.

Significant federal research investments in HIV, stroke and heart disease have saved lives and reduced overall health care costs. But a similar investment has not been made in Alzheimer’s, and we are paying for it daily. As caregiver advocate Daisy Duarte describes,

I was forced to close a successful business to provide the full time care my mom needs. Now any money I make as an hourly worker, along with her meager pension, go to Alzheimer’s related costs. It’s certainly not something we planned for financially or emotionally.

While the emotional toll is immeasurable, the economic cost is $260 billion annually, and families can expect to spend between $41,000 and $56,000 in Alzheimer’s-related costs each year. This is a frightening prospect for Latino and Black households, where the median income was $40,785 and $39,715 in 2010, respectively.

It is in our best interest for disparities to be front and center in our national effort to cure Alzheimer’s by 2025, an ambitious goal set by the last administration, the achievement of which will take the collaboration of policy makers, researchers, industry leaders, health professionals, philanthropists and informed citizens from all walks of life participating in life-saving research.

Public conversations shape policy and health priorities. They speak to our collective values and contribute to efforts to destigmatize diseases like Alzheimer’s on the community-level. This is no trivial matter in our digitized world: A recent study found that more than half of all public tweets about Alzheimer’s and dementia contained stigmatizing messaging.

This month offers us a unique opportunity to buck this trend. Millions of socially conscious Americans are using National Minority Health Month as an opportunity to talk openly about Alzheimer’s, using the hashtag #NMHM17. If we all use this last week, and the hashtag, to join the conversation, we would act powerfully to bring Alzheimer’s out of the shadows.

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