Dr. Byron Conner recently retired after more than a quarter of a century as an internist with Kaiser Permanente, but relaxing isn’t high on his agenda. Now he’s a full-time volunteer, taking his message of the connection between brain health and a healthy lifestyle to churches, barber shops, salons and community forums through the Denver area.
While Dr. Conner has spoken to a wide range of audiences on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, his passion is focused on the African-American community where the risk for Alzheimer’s disease is highest – and he finds far too many people who choose to ignore the warning signs.
“We know that vascular disease – diabetes and hypertension – are much more common in minority populations (African-Americans and Hispanics), and vascular dementia and diabetes are linked with Alzheimer’s,” said Dr. Conner. “I see too many young people with hypertension…not only more prevalent, but starting at a younger age, including people in their 30s with uncontrolled hypertension and diabetes.”
The predisposition to vascular disease is among the factors that contribute to African-Americans being twice as likely as whites to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, and Hispanics are 50 percent more likely than whites.
Despite that elevated risk, Dr. Conner is frustrated that many people he encounters remain in denial.
“Some people who I meet in our sessions in the community (through the Colorado Black Health Collaborative) say they don’t want to know about high blood pressure,” he said. “Obesity is skyrocketing. Our whole population is more sedentary, and that’s a problem.”
While there isn’t a cure, treatment or prevention for Alzheimer’s, Dr. Conner stresses that the key to lowering the risk of dementia is living a healthy life, particularly as we age.
“I have seen elderly people who have almost no diseases at all,” he said. “To a person, they go out to walk daily, they don’t smoke. And I’ve seen the opposite – people who have major health issues in their 40s and 50s. There is the lure of unhealthy fast foods. The best way to eat a healthy diet is to not eat anything advertised on TV.”
Exercise is the other missing piece. Dr. Conner notes that we are fortunate to live in Colorado, where the climate allows for being active outdoors virtually year-around.
“You don’t have to be into sports, but you need to run or walk or do anything,” he said. “There is a strong correlation to and a strong payoff from living a healthy lifestyle.”
To learn more about Alzheimer’s Association guidance on the impact of a healthy lifestyle – and the “10 Ways to Love Your Brain” tipsheet – go to www.alz.org/co or call the Association’s free 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900.