A groundbreaking new study is exploring the prevalence of LGBT dementia patients.
Researchers from Kaiser Permanente and the University of California, San Francisco surveyed more than 200,000 adults over the age of 60, including 3,718 LGBT adults, and leveraged their medical data to look at dementia diagnoses. Their findings were presented Sunday at the 2018 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Chicago.
While the rate of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is about 10 percent for the general population, researchers found it was just 7.4 for seniors who were sexual minorities. The reason for the lower rate isn’t quite clear, researchers say, but the LGBT subjects tended to be younger and male, which may have influenced the results. Also, they were more educated: “Of those in the study 62% had college education or higher,” Jason Flatt of UCSF’s Institute for Health & Aging told Hornet. “Education is known to be protective against dementia.”
LGBT seniors are also less likely to live with family members who would recognize symptoms. According to SAGE, queer elders are twice as likely to age without a partner and more than three times less likely to have children.
“Current estimates suggest that more than 200,000 sexual minorities in the U.S. are living with dementia, but before our study almost nothing was known about the prevalence of dementia among people in this group who do not have HIV/AIDS-related dementia,” said Jason Flatt of UCSF’s Institute for Health & Aging. “Though our new findings provide important initial insights, future studies aimed at better understanding risk and risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other dementias in older sexual minorities are greatly needed.”
Flatt’s team believes depression, hypertension, stroke, and cardiovascular disease—all of which LGBT people are at higher risk for—could be contributing factors for LGBT dementia patients.
“With the growing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease dementia and the swelling population of LGBT older adults, we place a high priority on examining the intersections of Alzheimer’s disease, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression,” said the Alzheimer’s Association’s Sam Fazio. “A more thorough and thoughtful understanding of this intersection will enable us to better meet the needs of LGBT elders living with dementia and their caregivers.”
Fazio underscored how culturally competent outreach is essential to foster healthier lifestyle choices and earlier diagnosis, which has been tied to better outcomes for patients, as well as a supportive atmosphere for LGBT adults living with dementia.
There are an estimated 2.7 million LGBT Americans over the age of 50—a rate expected to double in the next 15 years. And while the queer seniors are not at heightened risk of dementia, they do face unique challenges: Healthcare providers and assisted living personnel may be ignorant or even hostile to their needs, forcing many elders back in the closet in their twilight years. Forty percent of LGBT people in their 60s and 70s say their healthcare providers don’t know their sexual orientation.
The Alzheimer’s Association and SAGE suggest providers that cater to the elderly educate themselves on LGBT issues and consider creating specific support groups for queer patients and caregivers.
“This research marks an important step in understanding and addressing the intersection of LGBT identity and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Tim Johnston, SAGE’s Director of Director of National Projects. “We know LGBT people and LGBT-identified caregivers face unique challenges as they navigate the disease, and hope that researchers will expand this work, including a specific focus on the experiences of transgender older adults.”
What can the medical community do to help LGBT dementia patients? Respond in the comments below.