Dementia, Substance Misuse, and Social Determinants of Health: American Indian and Alaska Native Peoples' Prevention, Service, and Care

Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). 2023 Jan 18:7:24705470221149479. doi: 10.1177/24705470221149479. eCollection 2023 Jan-Dec.


Background: American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) peoples are disproportionately impacted by substance use disorders (SUDs) and health consequences in contrast to all racial/ethnic groups in the United States. This is alarming that AI/AN peoples experience significant health disparities and disease burden that are exacerbated by settler-colonial traumas expressed through prejudice, stigma, discrimination, and systemic and structural inequities. One such compounding disease for AI/AN peoples that is expected to increase but little is known is Alzheimer's disease and related dementias (ADRD). AI/AN approaches for understanding and treating disease have long been rooted in culture, context, and worldview. Thus, culturally based prevention, service, and caregiving are critical to optimal outcomes, and investigating cultural beliefs regarding ADRD can provide insights into linkages of chronic stressors, disease, prevention and treatment, and the role of substance misuse.

Method: To understand the cultural practices and values that compose AI/AN Elder beliefs and perceptions of ADRD, a grounded theory, qualitative study was conducted. Twelve semistructured interviews with AI/AN Elders (M age = 73; female = 8, male = 4) assessed the etiology, course, treatment, caregiving, and the culturally derived meanings of ADRD, which provides a frame of understanding social determinants of health (SDH; eg, healthcare equity, community context) and impacts (eg, historical trauma, substance misuse) across the lifespan.

Results: Qualitative analyses specific to disease etiology, barriers to treatment, and SDH revealed 6 interrelated and nested subthemes elucidating both the resilience and the chronic stressors and barriers faced by AI/AN peoples that directly impact prevention, disease progression, and related services: (1) postcolonial distress; (2) substance misuse; (3) distrust of Western medicine; (4) structural inequities; (5) walking in two worlds; and (6) decolonizing and indigenizing medicine.

Conclusion: Barriers to optimal wellbeing and SDH for AI/AN peoples are understood through SUDs, ADRD, and compounding symptoms upheld by colonial traumas and postcolonial distress. En masse historical and contemporary discrimination and stress, particularly within Western medicine, both contextualizes the present and points to the ways in which the strengths, wisdom, and balance inherent in AI/AN culture are imperative to the holistic health and healing of AI/AN peoples, families, and communities.

Keywords: American Indian/Alaska Native; dementia; historical trauma; social determinants of health; substance use.