Regular readers know that I have a vested interest in Alzheimer’s Disease information having lost an aunt to it as well as two other family members to dementia. According to research by Rush University Medical Center the disease is responsible for far more deaths that are reported.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Alzheimer’s as the cause of about 70,000 deaths in 2010, making it the sixth greatest cause of death (heart disease and cancer hold a firm grip on the top two spots). However, when related conditions are considered, the number actually is about 500,000, according to a research study authored by Bryan James, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and assistant professor in Rush’s Department of Internal Medicine.
Many people with the illness succumb to related conditions rather than Alzheimer’s itself. The most common are pneumonia and falls, according to Raj Shah, MD, a researcher with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and an associate professor in the Rush Department of Family Medicine.
“They may be listed as the causes on a death certificate, but the person wouldn’t have had that fall or pneumonia without Alzheimer’s,” Shah says.
“Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are under-reported on death certificates and medical records,” said study author Bryan D. James, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “Death certificates often list the immediate cause of death, such as pneumonia, rather than listing dementia as an underlying cause.
“James added that attempting to identify a single cause of death does not always capture the reality of the process of dying for most elderly people, as multiple health issues often contribute.”
David Bennett, MD, the director of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the Robert C. Borwell professor of neurological sciences, said, “Alzheimer’s can disrupt the autonomic nervous system, which controls unconscious body functions such as heartbeat and digestion, leading to autonomic failure.”
He also notes that many patients with the disease in nursing homes develop urinary tract infections or stop eating.
“It’s contributing in all kinds of complex ways, some of them social and some of them biological,” he says.
“Determining the true effects of dementia in this country is important for raising public awareness and identifying research priorities regarding this epidemic,” said James.