Alzheimer’s disease is a public health concern of increasing significance and magnitude. It is a devastating cognitive illness that reduces the functionality, life expectancy, and quality of life of millions of older adults worldwide. However, there are many older adults who have the disease that have not been formally diagnosed. As the most prevalent form of dementia, it is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, and it continues to evade cure. Alzheimer’s disease attacks cells in the areas of the brain that are associated with memory, and eventually destroys brain matter that is vital to bodily functioning.
There have been a number of notable people who have been affected by or whose lives have been claimed by Alzheimer’s disease. One such person is President Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was Hip Hop’s first president, and his administration and policies were the subject of fiercely caustic scrutiny by many of Hip Hop’s earliest artists, from Melle Mel to N.W.A. It is said that Hip Hop “lost its innocence” during the Reagan years, as the effects of his presidency transformed Hip Hop artists into journalists reporting on the grave state of urban America. Around what would have been his 100th birthday, in the face of much controversy and denial, President Reagan’s youngest son contended that his father began exhibiting early signs of the disease during his presidency. Another notable person who also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease is Rosa Parks. Once deemed the Mother of the Freedom movement, Rosa Parks’ contribution to the cause of civil rights helped to lay the foundation for Hip Hop to become a unifying force for race and class relations in the United States and beyond. According to her family, her lawyers took advantage of her compromised mental state in order to file a 1999 lawsuit against the Atlanta-based Hip Hop duo Outkast for defamation and the unauthorized use of her name in the 1998 song “Rosa Parks”. Unfortunately, taking advantage of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease is not an uncommon exploit. The lawsuit was settled in 2005, the same year that she died.
The complexities involved with caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease can be extraordinarily burdensome to the members of that person’s family. Caregivers of older adults with Alzheimer’s disease often experience higher levels of stress, lower quality of life, and poorer health than caregivers caring for older adults with other illnesses. Familial caregivers are often members of the “Sandwich Generation”: individuals that care for both their ailing parents and their young school-age children while holding down regular employment. Doug E. Fresh, the Vice President of Entertainment and spokesperson for Hip Hop Public Health, is one such member of the “Sandwich Generation”. He is the primary caregiver for his mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Doug E. Fresh has diligently sought and acquired tangible knowledge and understanding of the disease, which has given him the ability to approach the task of her care with a great deal of acumen and creativity. He has also become a champion in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease by joining forces with the New York Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. He contends that he must take the experience one day at a time, and he aims to cherish everyday he spends with his mother. Sometimes, she even accompanies him on the road.
There are several other Hip Hop artists that are caring or have cared for a family member with Alzheimer’s disease, and have used their art and consequent notoriety to acknowledge their struggle and provide support to others facing the same struggle. For example, Atlanta-based Hip Hop artist T.I.’s father, Clifford Harris, Sr., died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. T.I.’s wife Tiny of R&B group Xscape is currently helping to care for her father Charles Pope of the R&B group “The Tams”, who also has Alzheimer’s disease. Together, T.I. and Tiny formed the For The Love Of Our Fathers Foundation (FTLOOF), whose mission is to raise money and awareness in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease as well as to provide support to those who are affected by the disease. Activities of the Foundation include luncheons, benefit concerts, and other events and initiatives. In February 2011, Detroit-based Hip Hop artist Majestik Legend released a song entitled “Million Miles Away” which is dedicated to the memory of his father who died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Dru-Ha, the co-owner of Duck Down Records, recently lost his father to a 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease. In remembrance of his father, he released a song on Duck Down Music entitled “Run To Remember” featuring Hip-Hop veterans Buckshot, Smif N Wessun, and Promise and produced by Double-O of Kidz in the Hall in order to raise awareness about the disease. The song is being sold on iTunes, and the proceeds are being donated to the Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. Dru-Ha also ran in the 2011 ING New York City Marathon with the team “Run To Remember”, and the money raised by his team was also donated to the Alzheimer’s Research Foundation. There is even a group of older adults in the U.K. who call themselves “The Wrinkly Rappers” who use Hip Hop parody to raise money for the organization Alzheimer’s Research UK. The efforts of these individuals clearly demonstrate the interminable power of Hip Hop music to address the hardships of the communities it represents.
Although there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease, several epidemiological studies suggest that, in addition to diet and exercise, participation in cognitively-stimulating activities and the maintenance of leisure activity may be associated with delays in cognitive decline and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Creating and listening to Hip Hop music is no doubt included here. There is a great deal of research that suggests that listening to and creating music may benefit brain health. Language with melody and/or rhyme schemes may also be beneficial to memory. Hip Hop not only features complex combinations of melody and percussion and incorporates other musical genres, but it also offers exceptional manipulation of human language, which may stimulate cognition in a uniquely powerful way. Future research efforts should study middle-aged and older adults who have created and/or listened to Hip Hop music over the course of their lifetime to see if their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is affected in any way. In addition, engaging in Hip Hop styles of dance requires a great deal of synchronization, which may also benefit cognition and affect Alzheimer’s risk. Older adults of African and/or Latin descent are at twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in comparison to their White counterparts. However, low dementia health literacy and cultural beliefs about dementia among Blacks and Latinos are likely barriers to acceptance and timely diagnosis of the disease, as symptoms are often incorrectly assumed to be a part of normal aging. Individuals may avoid sharing cognitive and behavioral problems of their loved ones with outsiders due to the taboo and oftentimes dismal nature of the subject. Efforts to improve dementia health literacy may facilitate earlier diagnosis and reduce Alzheimer’s disease risk, particularly in Black and Latino communities. Interventions promoting healthy diet as well as physical and social activity may also decrease the risk of dementia in older adults. As Hip Hop music has effectively challenged and raised awareness of other issues and conditions that disproportionately affect Black and Latino communities, such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, and police brutality, it is only logical that Alzheimer’s disease be confronted using Hip Hop music with greater emphasis and scope.
Concepts of dementia likely develop in elementary school-aged children, however, no dementia public awareness programs in the United States focus on knowledge among younger generations. Interventions that target younger generations may shift cultural perceptions to improve acceptance of dementia and reduce barriers to early diagnosis. The Hip Hop Public Health team is currently developing the Old S.C.H.O.O.L. Hip Hop program, which will build upon the successful model employed by the Hip Hop Stroke and Hip Hop H.E.A.L.S. (Healthy Eating And Living in Schools) programs to provide children with knowledge and recognition of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, when to seek medical care for symptoms, and potential risk reduction measures. The ultimate goal is that children participating in the Old S.C.H.O.O.L. Hip Hop program will be motivated and given strategies to engage and educate their parents, grandparents, and other adult caregivers. Educating one generation of a family, even the youngest generation, can influence their future health and the health of their subsequent children, inform other current family members with mid-life risk, and improve the well-being of those already affected by the disease. Be sure to stay tuned with more information about our team’s progress in this worthwhile endeavor. In the meantime, please do not take your memory or your life and that of your loved ones for granted, and make sure to do everything in your power to save them both.