Study Suggests Number of Deaths from Alzheimer's Underestimated
I’ve called Alzheimer’s the coming tsunami that will swamp many nations, including the United States. But it turns out that our health care system already may be starting to get overrun by patients who have this disease, although their diagnosis isn’t properly being recorded.
New research has thrown into question the number of people who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago. The difference in numbers is staggering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2010, Alzheimer’s disease was the underlying cause of 83,494 deaths.
In comparison, a 2014 longitudinal study out of Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center suggests that the number of people with Alzheimer’s should be five times the reported amount (503,400 deaths of people age 75 and older). And if that number is correct, then Alzheimer’s disease equals cancer and heart disease for the number of deaths.
This study involved data from 2,566 people who were at least 65 years of age (although the average age of the study participants was 78). These participants also agreed to donate their brains so the organ could be autopsied after their death.
While these participants didn’t have dementia at the start of the study, 559 (21.8 percent) did develop Alzheimer’s disease within eight years from the start of the study. Additionally, 1,090 participants (42.4 percent) died during this time frame. The researchers’ calculations found that the time from when a participant was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s to his or her death was slightly less than four years.
The autopsy of the participants’ brains allowed researchers to determine whether Alzheimer’s hallmark tangles and plaques were present and, thus, enabled the researchers to better assess who had died from this disease. Their calculations estimated that 503,400 Americans who were age 75 and older died from Alzheimer’s disease in 2010.
So what are some takeaways from this study? Here are my thoughts:
- Alzheimer’s disease is underreported as a cause of death. That shouldn’t be too surprising since Alzheimer’s disease often is only one of many conditions that a loved one has. For instance, my mother was diagnosed advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) around 1997. Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2005 after a three-year downward slide into mild cognitive impairment. And at various points, doctors thought she might have a heart condition (which isn’t surprising, considering her limited lung capacity). In looking at Mom’s death certificate, the immediate cause of death was listed as cardiopulmonary arrest while the second condition was COPD. There is no mention of Alzheimer’s disease on her death record, even though this condition had already started affecting some of her bodily functions, including her ability to swallow. Did she die of Alzheimer’s? Probably not, but I would suggest that it was definitely a contributing factor.
- A person may not display symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, even though their brain may show Alzheimer’s pathology when autopsied. That was one of the big takeaways I learned several years ago when I heard about the Nun Study. In that study, researchers followed a group of nuns who were assessed for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s for a number of years. The nurses wrote regular journal entries, which allowed the researchers to track their complex thinking. After the nurses died, the researchers had the authority to dissect their brains in a blind autopsy in which those who were conducting the autopsy didn’t know of each nun’s cognitive status while alive. The lead researcher described how one nun’s brain was found to be riddled with the plaque that’s characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. However, when the person who did the autopsy compared notes with the other members of the research team, they all were amazed to find out that this nun had brain plaque because she didn’t show any signs or symptoms of Alzheimer’s while alive.
- It becomes even more important to make lifestyle choices that will protect your brain. Research increasingly is indicating that a healthy diet and exercise offer protection to the brain. Mental exercise such as solving puzzles, playing a musical instrument, reading or learning a foreign language also can help build your brain’s network, thus helping your cognitive ability to remain strong. Nurturing relationships and regular interactions with family members and friends also are important in protecting the brain against Alzheimer’s. Another key area on which to focus is lowering stress levels. Finally, you should try to maintain good overall health since conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and inflammation have been linked to the development of Alzheimer's.
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Mortality from Alzheimer's disease in the United States: Data for 2000 and 2010.
James, B.D., et al. (2014). Contribution of Alzheimer disease to mortality in the United States. Neurology.
Weintraub, K. (2014). Deaths from Alzheimer’s more than reported, study says.