Alzheimer’s disease is often under-reported as a cause of death and may contribute to nearly as many deaths as heart disease or cancer, according to a new study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
“Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are under-reported on death certificates and medical records,” said study author Bryan D. James, Ph.D, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Death certificates often list the immediate cause of death, such as pneumonia, rather than listing dementia as an underlying cause.”
James noted that trying to identify a single cause of death does not always capture the reality of death for most elderly people, and that multiple health issues are often at work.
“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,” said James.
Alzheimer’s currently comes in sixth on the list of leading causes of death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — heart disease and cancer top the list.
For the study, researchers enrolled 2,566 participants ages 65 and older (average age was 78) to receive yearly testing for dementia. After an average of eight years, 1,090 participants died. A total of 559 participants without dementia at the start of the study developed Alzheimer’s disease — the average time from diagnosis to death was about four years. Through autopsy, Alzheimer’s disease was confirmed for about nine out of 10 of those who were clinically diagnosed.
The death rate was over four times greater after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in participants ages 75 to 84 and nearly three times higher in those age 85 and older. More than one-third of all deaths in those age groups were attributable to Alzheimer’s disease.
James said “this translates into approximately 503,400 deaths from Alzheimer’s in the U.S. in people over the age of 75 in 2010. This is five to six times higher than the 83,494 number reported by the CDC based on death certificates.”
“Determining the true effects of dementia in this country is important for raising public awareness and identifying research priorities regarding this epidemic,” said James.
Source: American Academy of Neurology