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Dementia in Aboriginal peoples

May 16th, 2013

A breakthrough study has made the startling revelations that Aboriginal peoples are three times more likely to suffer dementia than non-Aboriginal Australians. The three year Koori Growing Old Well study delved into a cross-section of urban and regional NSW Aboriginal communities.

The myriad hardships and ailments that Aboriginal peoples endure are not only standalone risk factors to their health but contribute, as stressors, to the bringing of dementia. Risk factors that may contribute to dementia include high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and diabetes. All these factors may damage the brain.

Aboriginal communities that participated in the study included La Perouse, Campbelltown, Kempsey, Coffs Harbour and Nambucca.

The 336 participants were above 60 years of age.

The study found that there was a high rate of head trauma induced dementia rather than for instance alcohol-related dementia which was found to be quite rare.

Tony Broe

Tony Broe

Professor Tony Broe, senior research fellow at Neuroscience Research Australia was the study’s team leader. His study corroborates an earlier study of the high rate of dementia among Aboriginal peoples in the Kimberley. The Kimberley has 15,000 Aborginal residents, many of them endure impoverishment. Seven per cent of the Kimberley’s residents are homeless and 90 per cent of that homelessness is Aboriginal.

Professor Broe noted that that the majority of Aboriginal people live in urban regions, 70 per cent, and the high rates of dementia among Aboriginal peoples were not confined to the remote but also to urban Aboriginal peoples.

He noted that the rise of dementia among Aboriginal Australians was also a sad phenomenon among the world’s Aboriginal peoples.

“Aboriginal people in urban areas have a high incidence of many of the risk factors that have been linked to dementia in studies around the world,” said Professor Broe.

“We feel that is sort of just an end result of what is happening to Aboriginal people.”

He said that poor nutrition was a problem for many impoverished Aboriginal families from the beginning of life, and smoking was a recreational deflection from the hardships of life with youth taking it up in their early teenage years.

“It is because what happened to them in early life.”

He argues that there are social determinants to anyone’s development.

The three year study, concluding in October 2012, suggests the onset of dementia in people over 60 years of age is 13 per cent higher in Aboriginal Australians.

It must not be forgotten that Aboriginal Australians die much younger on average than non-Aboriginal Australians. Professor Broe pointed to a startling finding – that the onset of the dementia in Aboriginal peoples arises earlier than in non-Aboriginal people.

“They are a young, old group,” he said.

More than 70 per cent of Aboriginal people with dementia are aged between 60 to 70 years whereas the majority of non-Aboriginal Australians with dementia are over 70 years of age.

“We found the rate is 21 per cent, which is three times the non-Indigenous rate,” said Professor Broe.

Most Aboriginal families choose to care for a family member with dementia at home rather than place them in care, that is if they can afford to. There is now the organisation Aboriginal Dementia Knowledge.

Glen Rees from Alzheimer’s Australia said that Professor Broe’s findings are important. She said these findings would assist in targeting support to affected Aboriginal families.

The earlier Kimberley study also by Neuroscience Research Australia found that the Kimberley’s Aboriginal peoples were three times more likely to suffer dementia.

Professor Broe said that even impoverished Aboriginal families can do some things to protect them from dementia. He said the fact that for instance some of the Kimberley’s Aboriginal peoples speak three to four languages before they learn English is an excellent example of improving brain function. This is a good argument for Governments to fund bi-lingual learning for Aboriginal students – in recent years there have been cuts in funding to this.

In addition to the tobacco smoking, alcohol, and long term poor nutrition there are also the effects on many from the trauma of the Stolen Generations. Additionally, the high incidence of removing children from their parents affects many parents, and the children who grow older with the anxieties and eventual stress disorders from having been removed.

“The children taken from their parents, causing social disruption in the family and depriving them of love, of consistency in their upbringing (affects) the frontal development,” said Professor Broe.

He said that a number of studies show “that early brain development in the form of education is linked to later onset of dementia.”

Professor Broe found that the predominant type of dementia in Aboriginal peoples is Alzheimer’s disease followed by vascular dementia which is due to little strokes. He said the high incidence of head injuries among Aboriginal people was also causal to dementia, about 12 per cent of the dementia in Aboriginal people.

But alcohol-related dementia was rare shattering the myth of rampant alcoholism among Aboriginal peoples. Nearly 80 per cent of Aboriginal people, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, do not consume alcohol.

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