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On a gloomy mid-November morning in 2021, Jessica Cantú stood in the parking lot outside a health center in the rural border community of Starr County, Texas, and felt something pulling her back to her hometown.
The 45-year-old nurse practitioner was there to witness the grand opening of an Alzheimer’s research clinic called El Faro Health & Therapeutics Center — the first in Starr County and the only one for many miles. Seven months before, Cantú had lost her father to the memory-robbing disorder.
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“I just felt his presence all around me,” recalls Cantú, who at the time was living and working about an hour away in the city of Edinburg.
Not two weeks later, she joined the team at El Faro, opened by Antonio Falcon, a trusted family medicine doctor of four decades in Rio Grande City, and his son, James, a former U.S. Army emergency medicine physician. The purpose of the clinic, James Falcon says, is to provide more opportunities for Latinos to participate in Alzheimer’s disease research.
Latinos in the U.S. are one and a half times more likely than their white counterparts to develop Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. Yet they account for only a sliver of clinical trial participants — some studies estimate 1 to 2 percent — often due to limited awareness of research opportunities.
Meanwhile, Latinos are expected to face the steepest increase in dementia cases of any racial or ethnic group in the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts there will be 3.2 million Latinos living with dementia by 2060.
Starr County is all too familiar with the reality of these statistics. The predominately Hispanic community of about 66,000, which bleeds into the Texas-Mexico border, has one of the country’s highest reported rates of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. More than 23 percent of Medicare beneficiaries in Starr County have been diagnosed, federal data shows.
Alzheimer’s prevalence in neighboring counties is also high compared with the national average of about 11 percent. And until now, few residents have been given the opportunity to participate in dementia research, most of which is run out of distant hospitals and universities.
“Before [El Faro opened], you would go to the doctor and they’d say, ‘I’m sorry; it’s a memory problem. There’s not much you can do, just go home and be ready, prepare for it.’ And that was it,” Cantú says. “Now, there’s hope for Starr County; there’s hope for the Rio Grande Valley.”
Working with the nonprofit Global Alzheimer’s Platform Foundation, El Faro began enrolling patients in its first clinical trial last winter. The study assesses whether blood and digital biomarker tests (a biomarker is a substance in the body that can point to the presence of a disease) can detect amyloid plaques in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. The most common ways for doctors to know whether a patient has these sticky protein plaques that disrupt brain function is with a PET scan or a spinal tap, both of which are expensive and invasive.
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Experts say more accessible tests are needed that can identify the disease early in its course, perhaps even before symptoms begin. An early diagnosis gives patients and families time to plan and an opportunity to enroll in trials testing potentially lifesaving medicines.
El Faro plans to launch another study before the end of the year with the Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative, an organization focused on diversifying dementia research in the U.S. and globally. The study will follow Latino families across generations and monitor their health with blood tests and other simple screening tests, some of which have been modified to be more culturally relevant by including words and pictures that better represent our multicultural population. The goal, explains study leader Rhoda Au, is to identify risk factors that may drive dementia in this group and to nail down when these risks kick in.
Hopefully, the results of this study can help to inform whether early drug or lifestyle interventions — say in your 30s, 40s or 50s — can delay the onset of dementia, “or even prevent it, which is ultimately what we’re really hoping to get to,” says Au, the global cohort program director at Davos Alzheimer’s Collaborative and a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine.
Dementia doesn’t look the same in everyone
Did you know?
About 6 million Americans have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s, which is the most common type of dementia. Other types include frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia and vascular dementia. It’s possible to have more than one type of dementia, which can make an accurate diagnosis difficult.
Source: National Institute on Aging
About eight hours north of Rio Grande City, in Fort Worth, Texas, researcher Sid O’Bryant is working to find answers that can explain why Mexican Americans, the largest group of Latinos in the U.S., are at a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias than their white counterparts, and why they can experience symptoms years — sometimes a decade — before their peers. Is the reason biological? Or are there other factors at play?
O’Bryant’s federally funded research has also expanded to study the risks related to Black Americans, who are twice as likely as white adults to face an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. “There are definitely differences between racial and ethnic groups with regards to Alzheimer’s and dementia. And that’s what we’re trying to understand,” says O’Bryant, the executive director of the Institute for Translational Research at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.
He hopes any clues he finds will help guide the development of treatments — possibly even tailored therapies — that are effective in all populations, not just the white patients who have historically made up the majority of study participants. What’s been discovered could do just that.