The deadly disease that robs people of their memory and ability to live everyday life has now been estimated to be in the top three killers of Americans each year, just behind heart disease and cancer. A new study estimated that Alzheimer’s disease kills upwards of half a million lives every year.
In 2010, the degenerative brain disease was responsible for 83,000-plus U.S. fatalities, making it the sixth leading cause of death. However, Bryan James, an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, says that the true toll may be six times that amount. “Death certificates are well known to underreport deaths from Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia,” said James, the lead author of the study published Wednesday. “The more immediate causes of death, such as pneumonia or heart attack, are usually listed, and the underlying causes of death are usually left off.”
This study followed more than 2,500 people over the age of 65 for eight years. Of those, nearly a quarter developed Alzheimer’s, and the disease was the cause of death in about 400 people, James said. James and co-workers, from Rush University in Chicago and at two California institutions, the University of California-San Francisco and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, then statistically calculated results to estimate 503,000 Alzheimer’s deaths a year.
In comparison, heart disease was blamed for 600,000 deaths in 2010 and cancer 575,000. However, these death tolls are going down and Alzheimer’s is rising. “I couldn’t say when, but in the next 20 years, it could catch up to cancer,” James said.
Dallas Anderson, who oversees population studies of Alzheimer’s and dementia at the National Institute on Aging, called the findings “eye-catching.” “People who I think are knowledgeable about the death registration system in the U.S. would not be surprised that the official number is low, but it is somewhat of a surprise to see that kind of a difference,” Anderson told CNN.
There are similar studies that are underway. Anderson said, “It’s just another reminder that Alzheimer’s is really an important public health problem, and we need to work on it.”
Keith Fargo, the science program director of the Alzheimer’s Association, said the new study’s mortality estimate is “much closer to the true number.” He added, “The Alzheimer’s Association has been saying for a long time that the 80,000 figure is a gross undercount.” These findings may help American’s realize that this disease is not “just about forgetfulness,” but is “a universally fatal brain disease.”
The Alzheimer’s Association said that in 2013, 5.2 million people had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and over the last decade, mortality rates have increased by 68%. It is estimated that by 2025, the disease will climb to 7.1 million. Currently, the National Institutes of Health has about $560 million budgeted for research and in 2012 the Obama administration announced plans to pour another $156 million into Alzheimer’s research. However, according to Fargo, it is “a step in the right direction,” but not enough. “Scientists have told us we need to invest $2 billion a year for 10 years if we are truly going to move the needle on Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.