Deaths from Alzheimer’s Could Be More Than Reported

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerMarch 10, 2014

Alzheimer’s is officially the sixth leading cause of death accounting for roughly 83,000 deaths per year in the United States behind heart disease and cancer. A new study suggests that Alzheimer’s may actually account for 503,400 deaths annually, placing it third on the list of causes of death. While further research is needed to determine the exact numbers, all can agree that we have an urgent need for more Alzheimer’s research funding. 

Underestimating the Impact of Alzheimer’s

A new study published in the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology estimates that over 500,000 people over the age of 75 die annually from Alzheimer’s disease instead of the 83,000 previously thought. This new number would rank Alzheimer’s third on the list of causes of death in the U.S., behind cancer and heart disease but above lung disease, strokes, and accidents.

Researchers at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago observed over 2,500 people for eight years testing them for Alzheimer’s annually. After their deaths, their brains were donated for more study. The death certificates for many of the participants who had Alzheimer’s often listed a more immediate cause of death which can lead to a serious underreporting issue.

The lead author of the report, Bryan James, said that “Death certificates may not be the best way to measure how many people die from something that takes up to 10 years. We’re not saying they didn’t die of those things; we’re just saying, ‘Well, what put them in the hospital with that condition?”

Disputed Outcome

The new number is far higher than the estimate from the Center for Disease Control. Robert Anderson, Chief of the CDC’s mortality statistics branch, is skeptical that the gap is as large as the new study suggests but does acknowledge that death certificates are likely to underreport deaths from Alzheimer’s. In response to the results, he said, “It’s a stretch to extrapolate to the entire U.S. population from a study based on 2,500 people. I find it very difficult to believe based on a study like this that there are 500,000 deaths.” He also says that the figures from the CDC that include underlying causes of deaths showed roughly 110,000 mentions of Alzheimer’s disease on the death certificate.

Anderson has said that while the new study is important, it should not be the final number, and more research is still needed.

A Call to Action

Regardless of the exact numbers, researchers can agree that more funding is needed to fight Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s care costs the United States roughly $200 billion a year while the government spends less than 1% on research.

Researchers estimate they will need $2 billion a year for 10 years, to really make a difference in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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