Every Saturday at Casa Maravilla, a housing development for seniors in Chicago, dozens of older Latinos gather to dance and, they hope, help preserve their memory.
At twice-weekly practices, they step in sync in promenade-like moves to danzón, the slow and elegant musical genre that’s popular in Mexico. Or, they swish their hips and twist through each others’ arms to more energetic salsa.
The dancers are part of the Latino Alzheimer’s & Memory Disorders Alliance, or LAMDA, which started “Bailando por la Salud” (Dancing for Health) to inspire Latinos who are uncomfortable with other forms of exercise to get fit and healthier -- which in turn may help stave off Alzheimer’s and other memory loss conditions.
“People come here to dance and they are also getting their exercise in a way that they feel is culturally relevant to them. They feel good, and they interact with each other,” says LAMDA Executive Director Constantina Mizis.
The Alzheimer’s Association of America calls Alzheimer’s “a looming yet unrecognized crisis in the Latino community." Alzheimer’s affects Latinos in greater numbers than the general population and the number of Latinos with the condition could grow by 600 percent by 2050, the association says.
New research suggests that Mexican Americans – the country’s largest group of Latinos – develop risk factors that could lead to Alzheimer’s as early as a decade sooner than others. So getting the population in better shape could help not just their hearts, but their minds.
“These are stark findings. The risk factors for memory loss may be different for Mexican Americans,” said Dr. Sid O’Bryant, interim director of the Institute for Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Research at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
O’Bryant and his team of researchers studied 1,500 Mexican Americans who were already participating in clinical or community studies on aging. They found that factors such as education level, depression and diabetes were important considerations into whether the participants developed mental impairment and early stages of Alzheimer’s.
Juan Manuel Martínez, 74, had a daily reminder for years of what Alzheimer's can do to one's brain function.
Martínez, who arrived in Chicago as a young man from Aguascalientes, Mexico, spent several years caring for his mother, Luz María Gutiérrez. She suffered the effects of Alzheimer’s for nearly a decade before passing away at age 86.
The experience led him to the LAMDA dances. He has enjoyed them so much that he and his wife of 46 years, Consuelo, became LAMDA danzón instructors.
“I don’t have any symptoms (of Alzheimer’s) but I wanted to make sure that I did everything I could to stay physically and mentally fit, just in case,” he said.
“Danzón is an elegant way of keeping fit both physically and mentally. We get together and interact. We have fun. We exercise,” he added.
Research has suggested higher incidences of cardiovascular diseases and other risks, such as diabetes may play roles in the effect of Alzheimer’s in the Latino community.
“If we can prevent some of those risk factors by educating the community about a healthy diet and healthy lifestyle, then that is progress,” said Mizis, the daughter of Greek and Mexican immigrants.
“But it’s not just enough to tell people that they need to have a healthy diet and have an active lifestyle," she said. "We also have to look at how it works for our culture ... We have to do what makes them comfortable, or they won’t do it.”
Mexican Americans are nearly twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to be diagnosed with diabetes and 50 percent more likely to die from the disease compared to their non-Hispanic white counterparts, according to the U.S. Department of Health’s Office of Minority Health.
The costs for caring for Alzheimer’s patients is high –-$203 billion in 2013 -– and expected to jump to a staggering $1.2 trillion in less than four decades, including a 500 percent increase in Medicare and Medicaid spending, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
O’Bryant said while the early onset of cognitive impairment was the “scariest” finding of his ongoing research, the early appearance also means the disease can be identified and treated sooner.
“Treatment could be different for Mexican Americans as we further understand the risk factors,” he said.