Study Reveals Alzheimer’s Mortality Rate Goes Under-Reported

A new study is shedding light on the deadly impact of Alzheimer’s disease, which may be one of the top three causes of death in the U.S. The research, published in the journal Neurology, concluded Alzheimer’s may be an underlying cause of death at a rate five to six times greater than what is currently reported. The study was conducted by researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and was lead by Bryan James, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

“Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are under-reported on death certificates and medical records,” James said in a press release. “Death certificates often list the immediate cause of death, such as pneumonia, rather than listing dementia as an underlying cause.” With only one cause listed on death certificates, an incomplete picture is created; multiple factors contribute to declining health and death in old age. As a result, statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cannot accurately describe the fatal effects of dementia. Without the most precise information possible, it is difficult to assess the societal toll and implications of Alzheimer’s, James stated.

For the elderly, Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, the National Institute on Aging explains. It is a degenerative, progressive disease that currently has no cure. In the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s, the neurons become less capable of working efficiently, eventually ceasing to function entirely and dying. This shrinks the brain, causing memory loss and health complications.

The study began with a baseline of 2,566 people over 65 without dementia, who were annually tested for the disease. Out of the original cohort, 559 people developed Alzheimer’s. The death rate was over four times higher after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s for people between the ages of 75 and 84; it was almost three times higher for those with the disease and older than 85. In each age group, Alzheimer’s was the cause of death for one third of participants. An average of four years passed between diagnosis and death.

Extrapolating the data, James said an estimated 503,400 older than 75 died in the U.S. because of Alzheimer’s in 2010. “The estimates generated by our analysis suggest that deaths from Alzheimer’s disease far exceed the numbers reported by the CDC and those listed on death certificates,” James explained. In 2010, the CDC estimates that Alzheimer’s fell sixth on the list of leading causes of death, with 83,494 people having died from the disease. If accurate, the study’s calculations would place Alzheimer’s as the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease (597,689) and cancer (574,743).

James wants to see this, and other research heighten public awareness. “Determining the true effects of dementia in this country is important for raising public awareness and identifying research priorities regarding this epidemic.”

Actor Seth Rogen recently spoke out about this as well at a hearing before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies on Capitol Hill in late February. Like James, Rogen wants more funding, and a greater discussion about the increasing costs, and death rates associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Americans whisper the word Alzheimer’s, because their government whispers the word Alzheimer’s. And, although a whisper is better than the silence that the Alzheimer’s community has been facing for decades, it is still not enough,” Rogen stated. “It needs to be yelled and screamed to the point that it finally gets the attention and the funding it deserves and needs, if for no other reason than to get some peace and quiet.”

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