How lethal is Alzheimer’s disease?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Alzheimer’s disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States.  However, a recent study has found that it may be an even bigger killer than we thought. Researchers in Chicago followed over 2500 people who were 65 years or older and who underwent yearly testing for dementia. After eight years 1,090 participants died and 559 developed Alzheimer’s disease while being followed.


The death rate of those between 75 and 84 who were diagnosed during the study with Alzheimer’s disease was four times higher than those who were free of the disease.  It was three times higher in those over 85.  When the researchers took these numbers and applied them to American seniors with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010, it would mean that there were over 500,000 deaths in those over 75. That would be six times greater than the deaths reported by the CDC.


In other words, there are many more people dying of Alzheimer’s disease than we think. The reason for this is that death certificates report the immediate cause of death.  Often the chronic underlying cause is not reported.


Alzheimer’s disease results in memory loss from a progressive deterioration of the brain.  We still are not sure of the cause.  As people become more debilitated they have trouble with basic functions.  They may have difficulty swallowing, forget to drink and eat, and have trouble walking and balancing.  The common causes of death are aspiration pneumonia, which occurs from inhaling food as a result of trouble swallowing, dehydration due to lack of fluid intake and hip fractures as a result of falling.


Knowing the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on quantity of life as well as quality is extremely important. Not only does it take an emotional toll on family and loved ones, the cost to society is huge.  As the baby boomers continue to age, the numbers of those afflicted with this devastating disease will be skyrocketing.  The costs to care for these patients as well as loss of productivity will be enormous.


Recognizing the increase in the death rate hopefully will garner funding and accelerate new research projects.  We must find a cure for Alzheimer’s before it crushes our families and medical system and threatens our economy even more than it already has.