Native Americans Not Genetically Pre-Disposed To Develop Alzheimer’s Disease

Dec 5, 2014

Centers For Disease Control and Prevention statistics indicate that Native Americans continue to face disproportionately higher risks of developing many serious and even life-threatening ailments as they age. But research conducted by an Oklahoma health expert suggests that Alzheimer’s may be least among them.

Dr. J. Neil Henderson
Credit Susan Shannon

“The research that we've done over about the last 20 years, working with American Indians and Alzheimer's disease, does suggest that American Indians are less likely to get Alzheimer's disease,” Henderson said. “The reason that is possibly true relates to the underlying genetics.”

Dr. J Neil Henderson (Choctaw) is the Director of the American Indian Diabetes Prevention Center in Oklahoma City. His 2002 study linking race and age to Alzheimer’s, published in Neuroscience Letters, is increasingly relevant in today’s aging society.

“One of the risk factors, in any population, is a gene (APOE-epsilon 4) that comes from a protein that helps to transport fats around the body, cholesterol, helps to metabolize them,” Henderson said. “It also, if one lives long enough and if you have the variant of the gene, can increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease.”

Henderson's study found that particular variant is almost non-existent among people that are full bloods, or 50 percent Indian or higher.

“So the absence of that gene or the extremely low frequency of it compared to the white population means that there is one less push towards Alzheimer's disease among American Indians compared to the white population,” Henderson said.

“We used the CDIB (certificate of degree of Indian blood) card fraction on the front of everybody's care. One of the things that we found is that the CDIB card fractions are not perfect, but they're pretty close,” Henderson said.

Henderson’s research also led him to examine the cultural construction of the disease. Not surprisingly, he found that the Choctaw people were only beginning to formulate words to describe symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

“I did not expect there to be a word because in the past people died too soon for symptoms of Alzheimer's to show up,” Henderson said.

“Today as we are living longer across Indian Country, it leaves us without a particular word, so people try come up with ways to try to describe Alzheimer's or dementia,” Henderson said.

One of the more creative examples of this was how the family of an elder Choctaw woman attempted to describe her cognitive lapses.

“The way that one family member put it to me, was that Svpokni , which is the Choctaw word for grandmother, ‘We don't see what Svpokni sees.' So he wasn't saying she was wrong, she's hallucinating, she needs to be medicated,” Henderson said.

“It was none of that. It was, we are able in our household right here, as tragic as this is in all other ways, have an elder confirm to us there is another side,” Henderson said. “There are recognizable people and things and animals there, on the other side.”

“That is a way of talking about that part of the dementia experience that I never heard brought up in the memory disorder clinic I worked in for years.”

Henderson’s study Apolipoprotein E4 and tau allele frequencies among Choctaw Indians was published in Neuroscience Letters. The Experience and Interpretation of Dementia: Cross-Cultural Perspectives was published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology.