Alzheimer's death rates increased during the past 15 years

By Paul Basilio, MDLinx
Published June 16, 2017

Key Takeaways

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the rate of death from Alzheimer’s disease has increased by more than 50% in the United States during the past 15 years.

Part of the increase can be explained by the fact that Americans are living longer—age is one of the most significant risk factors for the disease. However, medical professionals are becoming increasingly adept at identifying risk factors and can recognize the symptoms earlier.

“Millions of Americans and their family members are profoundly affected by Alzheimer’s disease,” said CDC Acting Director Anne Schuchat, MD. “Our new study reveals an increase in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease-related deaths. As the number of older Americans with Alzheimer’s disease rises, more family members are taking on the emotionally and physically challenging role of caregiver than ever before. These families need and deserve our support.”

Currently, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death nationwide—one of every 10 Americans older than age 65 is estimated to have Alzheimer’s dementia. In 2012, diagnostic guidelines were updated to include biomarkers or genes to determine risk in addition to family reporting, physician judgement, and neurologic and cognitive examinations.

“Those in their 80s are at the highest risk, because that is the fastest-growing decade of Americans,” said Paul Eslinger, PhD, a Clinical Neuropsychologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Women represent approximately two-thirds of Alzheimer’s cases, in part because they tend to live longer than men. Some recent studies have also indicated the use of estrogen by women with a genetic biomarker for Alzheimer’s may lead to a significantly increased risk of developing the disease.

While Alzheimer’s disease is incurable and the exact cause is unclear, some treatments can slow progression of the disease.

“Certain medications can provide the brain with some of the neurotransmitters it needs so it can function with the depleted number of cells it has and you can slow clinical symptoms such as memory loss,” said  Claire Flaherty, PhD, a Clinical Neuropsychologist at Hershey Medical Center.

Dr. Eslinger noted that there are about 80 clinical trials in progress nationwide that focus on amyloid plaques in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The trials explore a range of approaches, including boosting brain immune function, cell metabolism, blood flow, and neurotransmitter efficiency.

Advances in management of the medical and non-medical aspects of the disease are making it possible for more Alzheimer’s patients to finish their lives at home. While that can improve a patient’s quality of life, it can place incredible demands on caregivers.

The brunt of the burden falls on women, who currently account for two-thirds of all caregivers. They may need to leave the workforce early, reduce the hours they can work, or make other career and lifestyle adjustments to provide the support an Alzheimer’s patient requires.

Dr. Flaherty said the problem is finally being recognized by local and state governments, which are forming plans to care for an aging population and an estimated tripling in the cases of Alzheimer’s in the next 30 years.

“We also have an extreme shortage of geriatric specialists in this country and those who are assigned to work with these Alzheimer’s patients are not always that well trained,” Dr. Flaherty said. “These are things that are now being addressed.”

To read more about these findings, click here.

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