News article

New study ranks Alzheimer’s as third leading cause of death, after heart disease and cancer

Posted:  Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Alzheimer's disease likely plays a much larger role in the deaths of older Americans than is reported, according to a new study that says the disease may be the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

An estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease in 2014, including approximately 200,000 individuals younger than age 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer's.

The number of Americans with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias will escalate rapidly in coming years as the baby boom generation ages. By 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer's disease may nearly triple, from 5 million to as many as 16 million, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow or stop the disease.

The Centres 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 in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests that the current system of relying on death certificates for causes misses the complexity of dying for many older people and underestimates the impact of Alzheimer's.

While the CDC attributed about 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, which rank third, fourth and fifth.

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 going down thanks to better treatment and prevention, the number of people suffering from Alzheimer's is quickly rising and the disease is always fatal.

Between 2000 and 2008, deaths attributed to Alzheimer's disease increased 66%, while those attributed to the number one cause of death-heart disease-decreased 13%. This increase reflects changes in patterns of reporting deaths on death certificates over time as well as an increase in the actual number of deaths attributable to Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's disease is the only major cause of death that significantly increased from 2009 to 2010, while other major causes of death declined.

Alzheimer's disease is the most expensive condition in the nation. In 2014, the direct costs to American society of caring for those with Alzheimer's will total an estimated $214 billion, including $150 billion in costs to Medicare and Medicaid. Despite these staggering figures, Alzheimer's will cost an estimated $1.2 trillion in 2050.

"We would like to see a response that is commensurate with the problem," Fargo said. "Alzheimer's disease is a serious disease and it 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."

“Trying to identify a single cause of death may not reflect the reality of dying for many older people, where multiple health issues contribute and lead to a cascade of deterioration of health and function that leads to death,” says lead researcher Bryan James, PhD. “And it’s hard to say which of those conditions is the real cause of death.”