Alzheimer’s Disease Toll Vastly Underreported

Study says deaths may equal heart disease or cancer

senior man offering a woman comfort

A new study finds that Alzheimer’s disease may contribute to almost as many deaths as heart disease or cancer. 

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Rush University Medical Center researchers studied more than 2,500 people who were age 65 and older. The researchers tested the people every year for dementia.

Almost half of the people died after an average of eight years. Of those who died, nearly 600 had developed dementia since the study began. 

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the study’s authors say that their findings far exceed the estimate by the CDC.

The researchers say their results would mean that Alzheimer’s disease contributes to more than 500,000 deaths each year, which is five to six times higher than the CDC’s number.

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The research shows how common it is for older adults to have Alzheimer’s disease, says neurologist James Leverenz, MD, of Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.

“Our current estimates of how many people die with Alzheimer’s are very likely much lower than what they really are,” Dr. Leverenz says. “This should open our eyes to the importance of Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly population.”

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a fatal brain disease. It is the most common form of dementia for older people.

Alzheimer’s disease affects the areas of the brain that are essential for thinking, memory and behavior. The symptoms of the disease include:

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  • Misplacing things or repeating questions
  • Trouble solving problems or poor judgment
  • Getting lost often or driving difficulties
  • Problems with language
  • Trouble with everyday tasks
  • Changes in personality and behavior, such as withdrawal or irritability

 What causes Alzheimer’s disease?

 Increasing age is the primary risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease. An abnormal build-up of proteins in the brain causes the disease. The build-up of the proteins – amyloid protein and tau protein – leads to brain cell dysfunction and death.

The study shows that physicians need to understand Alzheimer’s disease better, Dr. Leverenz says. 

“We need to know more about the disease and we need to come up with better ways to treat the disease and that’s going to require more research,” Dr. Leverenz says. 

The study appears today in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

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