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As Latinos age in the Rio Grande Valley, the border region is experiencing a surge of dementia-related disease – pushing scientists to find out why. The rising burden weighs heavily on caregivers such as Lupita Casas. She has spent nearly half her life caring for her father, who has Alzheimer’s, and now her mother, who recently developed dementia. Lupita’s story exemplifies the challenges of caring for ailing parents in an area with scant support and medical resources.


They managed to keep their promise to never put Tomas in a nursing home. Still, Cantú, who now works at a dementia research center, is frustrated by how things played out for her family. She first noticed changes in her father in 2007. Her dad started repeating himself during their daily calls. She took him to his primary care doctor, who insisted nothing was wrong. In the years that followed, her family kept pushing his doctors, including a neurologist, to do a more comprehensive evaluation of his condition.


The family was certain Tomas’ memory was deteriorating. But the doctors kept assuring them that he seemed fine. It wasn’t until 2016 that he was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. By the spring of 2021, her father’s health had deteriorated so much that Cantú began looking for help caring for him. The Valley has many adult day care centers, but as far as she knew none offered care for dementia patients. When she looked for the Alzheimer’s Association’s South Texas chapter, she discovered its office was in San Antonio, nearly four hours away. “Even as a nurse, I didn’t know where to find help, ” Cantú said. A windmill stands near the border of Starr and Hidalgo counties.


CREDIT: Daisy Yuhas A View of the Valley In the Valley, the juxtaposition of affluence and poverty is visible everywhere. On the U. side of the border, at the Valley’s easternmost end, is Brownsville, where Texas “snowbirds, ” the annual visitors from the northern United States, pass through on their way to South Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico. A few miles east of Brownsville is Elon Musk’s SpaceX facility, where one of the world’s richest men builds and launches rockets alongside one of the poorest medium-sized cities in the country.


So far, Maestre suspects the occurrence of dementia in the Valley could be even higher than the Medicare data suggests. Residents who don’t visit doctors don’t show up in the data. Others may be too embarrassed to tell their doctors about memory problems. But the number of cases could also be lower, Maestre says, because diagnosing dementia is so difficult.


Once those risk factors are identified, individuals — and the agencies and health care providers charged with protecting them — can take meaningful steps against the disease. “That’s how we beat it, ” said O’Bryant, the University of North Texas researcher. “A magic bullet doesn’t exist. We have to pull [dementia] apart, understand the nuances of it, find all the subgroups … then target every pathway. ” O’Bryant’s university, along with Seshadri’s and Maestre’s, is among 10 institutions that are part of the Texas Alzheimer’s Research and Care Consortium, which has supported dozens of projects. “Health disparities are, fundamentally, at their core, a failure of the scientific and medical community, ” he said. “It’s our job to fix it — it’s not on the community. ” O’Bryant, who is non-Hispanic and white, grew up in southern Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley, ” which has some of the highest cancer rates in the country.


And doctors can’t confirm an Alzheimer’s diagnosis without costly brain imaging or an invasive medical procedure. Determining the true scope of dementia here could help answer questions about how Alzheimer’s and related diseases affect Hispanic communities more broadly. In the next 40 years, Latinos are on track to see the steepest increase in dementia diagnosis of any racial or ethnic group, yet they make up less than 5% of participants in clinical trials.


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Fields of windmills and crops are common features in the largely rural Valley. CREDIT: Daisy Yuhas Untangling the Risk for Dementia Researchers hope their work in the Valley will give them a deeper understanding of the factors that increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Certain genes may contribute. But so can circumstances that people can change or avoid. Some studies suggest literacy alone may have a powerful protective effect.


“You grieve twice, ” said Jessica A. Cantú, who lost her father, Tomas, to dementia in 2021. While Tomas was alive and losing ground to the disease, she mourned. “I still grieve him every day, ” she said. Cantú’s parents moved in with her and her young son when Tomas’ disease worsened. They were better prepared than most families: Cantú is a nurse practitioner and her parents had health insurance.


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