Alzheimer’s disease likely plays a much larger role in the deaths of older Americans than is currently reported, according to a new study that says the disease may be the third-leading cause of death in the U.S.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists Alzheimer’s as the sixth-leading cause of death, far below heart disease and cancer. But the new report, published Wednesday in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests that the current system of relying on death certificates for cause of death misses the complexity of dying for many older people and discounts the impact of Alzheimer’s.
While the CDC attributed around 84,000 deaths in 2010 to Alzheimer’s, the report estimated that number to be 503,400 among people 75 and older. That puts it in a close third place behind heart disease and cancer, and well above chronic lung disease, stroke and accidents.
A sleeping giant
Alzheimer’s is somewhat of a “sleeping giant” compared with other leading killers that have received more funding over the years. While deaths from these diseases have been falling thanks to better treatment and prevention, the number of people suffering from Alzheimer’s is quickly rising.
Over 5 million people in the U.S. are currently estimated to have Alzheimer’s, and with the aging of the baby boomer generation this number is expected to nearly triple by 2050 if there are no significant medical breakthroughs, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The disease cost the nation $210 billion last year; that rate is expected to rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050.
“Scientists told us we need $2 billion a year over the coming 10 years” to see significant advancement in treatment and prevention, said Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs at the Alzheimer’s Association. NIH funding for Alzheimer’s in 2012 was around $500 million, far below funding for heart disease and cancers. Estimated funding in 2013: $484 million.
“We would like to see a response that is commensurate with the problem,” Fargo said. “Alzheimer’s disease … needs to be taken seriously, and if we have the right kind of investment as a country, then we will be able to make strides similar to what we’ve made in heart disease, HIV and cancer.”
Patients tracked for years
For the study, researchers at Rush Alzheimer’s disease Center in Chicago followed 2,566 people 65 and older for an average of eight years, testing them annually for Alzheimer’s-type dementia and observing the risk of death in those who did and did not receive a clinical diagnosis of the disease.
But death certificates for many with Alzheimer’s often listed a more immediate reason for death, leading to a severe under-reporting of the disease as an underlying cause, said Bryan James, the report’s lead author and an epidemiologist at the center.
“Death certificates may not be the best way to measure how many people die from something that takes up to 10 years” to break down a person’s system, he said, adding that the disease leaves people more vulnerable to dying from infections and other problems.
“Honestly, we’re not surprised by the study,” said Debbie Richman, director of education and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association of Minnesota-North Dakota. “It just validates the fact that yes, this is a fatal disease.”
Richman said when she speaks about Alzheimer’s deaths she’s careful to state that people die of complications related to the disease, which eventually kills the brain cells that control involuntary functions. But in fact, she said, “it really is Alzheimer’s that is causing the fatalities.”
Staff writer Dan Browning contributed to this report.