Older American Indians may experience higher levels of cognitive impairment than previously thought

May 21, 2024
NIH-funded research exposes additional health disparities for American Indians.

Researchers have found that 54% of older American Indians have cognitive impairment, including 10% with dementia, highlighting a significant disparity with the rates of cognitive impairment and dementia in the general American population.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study also identified vascular injury, which can result from untreated hypertension and diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease as equally responsible contributors to dementia in American Indians, with substantial overlaps between the two. The findings were published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Previous studies that relied on medical records estimated that cognitive impairment and dementia levels in American Indians were similar to non-Hispanic whites. However, for this new study, the researchers used survey and screening techniques with individual assessments that did not rely on previous access to the medical care system. They found that 216 American Indian participants aged 72-95 had some form of impairment. Of those, 140, or 35.3%, of them had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), 41 (10.3%) had dementia, and 35 (8.8%) had a different form of cognitive impairment that was not due to MCI or dementia. There were 181 (45.6%) participants who showed no signs of cognitive impairment.

These results suggest the levels of MCI and dementia in American Indians who are 72-95 years of age are higher than those in other groups. Based on previous studies, researchers estimated MCI levels at 12% to 21% of non-Hispanic whites, 22% to 25% of Black Americans, and 20% to 28% of Hispanics/Latinos. Vascular brain injury measures were seen more often than Alzheimer’s markers in the MCI cases, suggesting that both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular brain injury may have been drivers of cognitive impairment for many of the participants.

Led by a team of scientists at the Huntington Medical Research Institutes in Pasadena, California, and University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, the study harnessed the data of 397 participants in the NIH-funded Strong Heart Study. A population-based study of American Indian Tribes, the Strong Heart Study was conducted over 30 years and in three U.S. geographic regions — the Northern Plains, Southern Plains, and Southwest. An ancillary study included detailed cognitive testing, neurological examination, and brain imaging during two visits approximately seven years apart.

NIH release

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