Wartime trauma near home for scholars with dementia

Oanh Meyer was a postdoctoral fellow studying the experiences of caregivers of people with dementia in 2012 when her research took a very personal turn.

That year, her mother, a Vietnamese immigrant, began to show signs of memory loss and paranoia, apparently related to the trauma she suffered during the long war in Vietnam, when Bombs often caused her to hide underground and she lived in fear. of the Communist army.

Growing up as a Vietnamese-American, Meyer found reluctance to address mental health issues in her community, an issue she pursued throughout her education. She conducted her doctoral research at the University of California-Davis on disparities in mental health care among Asian Americans.

Now a assistant professor at the UC Davis Health Alzheimer’s Center, Meyer, 45, is leading an investigation into the link between trauma and dementia in the Vietnamese community. With a $7.2 million grant from the National Institute on Aging, the five-year study, which could begin recruiting earlier this month, will follow more than 500 Vietnamese older adults in Northern California, measures the correlation between adversity, trauma, and other factors in early life. with memory and perception.

When Vietnam’s 20-year war ended with the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, in 1975, the United States began evacuating the first of its approximately 1.4 million people. Vietnamese immigration. The link between post-traumatic stress disorder and dementia has been studied Meyer said.

Her mother, Anh Le, left the day before the fall of Saigon with her mother and some of her sisters. Meyer was born in New Jersey soon after, and the family later moved to Oklahoma and then California. Mrs. Le was 76 years old when she began to suffer from memory loss and paranoia. She was diagnosed with dementia in 2015.

We interviewed Meyer at her Davis home. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: How are you interested in the link between trauma and dementia in the Vietnamese population?

In 2013, I conducted a small, qualitative study where I interviewed several Vietnamese family carers who were caring for a family member with dementia.

I began to hear all these stories about trauma that a large portion of them had faced, or their family members had faced. At the same time, I remember when my mother went through her first phase, she was always very paranoid, and that was a symptom of dementia. She was especially paranoid about Communist troops being outside her house. She will close all shade and look out the front door and make sure all doors are locked.

That made me think: All the trauma these Vietnamese people have faced throughout their lives, how does it affect them now? The more I started researching, the more I found a link between trauma and PTSD and dementia.

Q: Has there been research on dementia in Vietnamese-Americans?

We know nothing about the number of Vietnamese people with dementia. This will be the first look at what this population looks like.

Hopefully, in the future, we can look at demographic change and change and see, has dementia changed over time? We hope to begin building some knowledge about this population and the prevalence of cognitive decline and dementia.

Q: What makes this the right time to research this issue?

A lot of Vietnamese who come to the US now have become old people. And so these people are now at an age where they could develop dementia if they continued.

Q: What did you find most interesting about this study?

Their trauma was war-related and it lasted throughout their early life. So we can look at the timing of the trauma and also be able to link that to dementia. And then we can look at people who have faced that trauma but don’t have cognitive impairment and look at what distinguishes these groups of people, all of whom have experienced some sort of trauma. love. There may be some restorative factors.

Q: What do you hope the impact of this research will be?

If we can find a link between early life trauma for the Vietnamese population and dementia, we might be able to see who might be at risk. We can help those individuals and possibly their family carers.

I think it can help us understand the health of refugees in general. More and more refugees continue to come to the US – from Afghanistan, for example. Being able to understand the Vietnamese experience can help us understand other refugee experiences, and some of the perceived health problems that may arise for those people in the future.

Q: Asian Americans face many barriers in accessing mental health services. Is this true of Vietnamese immigrants who need dementia care?

With mental health and with dementia, there is this stigma. I’ve worked with Vietnamese family members who care for children and they’re like, nobody wants to talk about it. There is a kind of unwritten rule that you must not talk about things that might bring shame to the family.

There’s this archetypal minority stereotype that shows that Asian Americans came here, they got nothing, and they worked so hard and now they’re doing great. But there is a lot of heterogeneity even in what you might think of as Pacific Islander Asian Americans. So I think what happens is the underperforming groups don’t get the support they need, whether it’s in terms of funding or services.

Q: How did you watch this game with your mother?

When she started showing signs and symptoms, we tried to talk to her about it and she just felt like, “Oh, that’s just a normal part of the aging process. It’s nothing serious.” And I remember talking to her primary care doctor about it too.He’s an elderly Vietnamese man and he didn’t really make a big deal out of it.

Sometimes primary care physicians are not trained in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So either he doesn’t realize it or culturally he’s trying to save face for her and not make her feel miserable by diagnosing her.

Q: It must be difficult to deal with your mother who just went through a trauma and now also has amnesia.

It can certainly be difficult. But I think I’m just wearing my scientist hat and trying to remember, “Oh, these are behavioral manifestations of this disease.” It’s very challenging and stressful, and that’s why caregivers need so much support. But I think doing research and trying to remind yourself of what’s going on on a neurological or biological level definitely helps.

This story is produced by KHN, publish California Healthline, an editorially independent service of California Health Care Foundation.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom specializing in the production of in-depth coverage of health issues. Along with Policy Analysis and Exploration, KHN is one of the three main activities in KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). The KFF is a nonprofit organization privileged to provide information on health issues to the nation.


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