Dr. Leslie Baxter

El Grupo contributes to overdue study

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Bitzee Mama’s is one of my favorite restaurants in the Valley. I love the breakfast burritos with chorizo, the fresh flour tortillas and the limitless salsa. But most of all, I like walking through the arched door of Bitzee Mama’s because it is where I find a group of old friends who are helping us understand the most serious health threat facing our country today.

I’m a researcher and a neuropsychologist at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and I’ve always been fascinated with memory. Why is it that we remember some things so clearly and so easily forget others? Why is it that middle-aged women struggle with memory loss just when many are trying to break the corporate glass ceiling? And, why is it that some ethnic groups are harder hit by dementia than others?

That last question is what led me to Bitzee Mama’s. It was at the Glendale restaurant that I was first introduced to El Grupo, a smart, fun and aging group of Hispanic classmates who all graduated from Phoenix Union High School in the 1950s and ‘60s. They meet monthly for breakfast to reminisce and socialize, and they now participate in scientific research.

As part of the Arizona Alzheimer’s Consortium, my research lab at Barrow is home of a long-term study on Alzheimer’s disease in Hispanics. This is a study that is overdue, and through my work with El Grupo, I am beginning to understand just why it has taken so long.

Alzheimer’s disease is the single largest, looming, public health threat facing the nation, but we know that the threat is even more substantial in the Hispanic community. Hispanics are more likely to have Alzheimer’s, less likely to know it and, as a result, less likely to receive available treatments. Currently 200,000 Latinos in America live with Alzheimer’s, and that number could increase to 1.3 million by 2050, a growth rate of 600 percent, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Before I met the members of El Grupo, we were having a difficult time getting Hispanics to participate in an Alzheimer’s research study. But the group of school friends, most of whom have no current signs of Alzheimer’s, decided to be medical pioneers and join us in a groundbreaking study. About 20 members now regularly undergo memory studies involving family history. They take cognitive tests. They undergo blood tests. And we map their brains with MRI studies.

I meet with El Grupo regularly at Bitzee Mama’s to talk about the latest news in Alzheimer’s research, answer questions and encourage them to help us find more participants. I’ve often asked them to explain why it is that we don’t find more Hispanics who want to join in medical research. They provide a number of reasons: religious beliefs, fear of bad news, worry about social stigma and dislike of doctors in general. All these reasons are understandable, but they have contributed to the delay of critical research findings as the threat of the devastating disease continues to grow.

In clinical trials nationally, only 3 percent of participants are Hispanic, while about 88 percent are Caucasian. Without their participation in these research studies, physicians or medical experts, like myself, are at a disadvantage in helping to diagnose and treat this illness in the Hispanic population.

The research into Alzheimer’s and the Hispanic community under way at Barrow is important and is a tribute to this community and to the members of El Grupo. These volunteers have taken a bold move, and their courage and dedication will affect medical research across the world.

If you would like to learn more about how to participate in our study, please call 602-406-4490.

Dr. Leslie Baxter directs the Neuropsychology Neuroimaging Laboratory in the Section of Clinical Neuropsychology at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. Dr. Baxter is the Principal Investigator for the Barrow site of the multi-institutional Arizona Alzheimer’s Research Consortium.

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