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According to Duke University Medical Center researchers, the impact of Alzheimer's disease on Hispanic communities in the U.S. is serious and getting worse. Not only do Hispanics have a higher rate of Alzheimer's than non-Latino whites, but onset occurs at an earlier age.

Several recent studies have shown that African Americans and Hispanics are far more likely to suffer from the disease than their Caucasian counterparts. As minority populations age, the researchers said, these disparities will likely become even more pronounced.

Stephanie Johnson, Ph.D., neuropsychologist at Duke's Joseph and Kathleen Bryan Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, said Alzheimer's disease among Hispanics is projected to continue growing at an alarming rate.

"The Alzheimer's Association estimates a growth of 600 percent in the next several decades," she said. "The numbers are very similar to those for African Americans, who have the highest prevalence rate. Approximately 1.3 million Hispanics will have Alzheimer's disease by the year 2050 if we don't find an effective cure."

Johnson said Alzheimer's disease is not only more prevalent among Hispanics, but the age of onset is significantly younger. A recent study found that early symptoms appear in Hispanics on average almost seven years before they do in non-Latino whites.

Part of the problem, according to Johnson, is that minority groups suffer from a higher rate of diseases that contribute to the development of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

"It's a complex problem, one that involves both genetic and environmental factors," she explained. "But we can certainly attribute some of this disparity to the incidence of chronic diseases that minority demographics deal with, for example type 2 diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. All of these have been related to the development of Alzheimer's disease and minority groups suffer from a higher rate of these cardiovascular risk factors."

Johnson believes education and community outreach are critical to helping prevent and treat the chronic medical conditions that put Hispanics at higher risk.

"Education has protective effects against Alzheimer's," she said. "One of the issues Hispanic families have to deal with is the literacy issue. Many Hispanics who come to this country are not literate in English. This results in barriers in access to and utilization of health care."

Johnson promotes lifestyle change as another measure that has been shown to help protect individuals from developing Alzheimer's disease. "Regular exercise, a diet rich in leafy greens and omega-3 fatty acids, and keeping your mind active can all help shield you from developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease. What's good for the heart is also good for the head."