Alzheimer’s deaths in the United States have jumped more than 50 percent in 15 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
One reason for the increase is that physicians are diagnosing the condition better, adding a lot more deaths to the Alzheimer’s category. Another reason is that Americans are living longer, and aging is one of the most common risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
Experts believe that one in 1o Americans aged 65 or older develops dementia associated with Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis process now includes genes and biomarkers related to the disease, neurological and cognitive examinations, and an analysis of family history.
“Those in their 80s are at the highest risk because that is the fastest-growing decade of Americans,” Paul Eslinger, a clinical neuropsychologist at Penn State Health’s Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said in a news release.
Women are more prone to developing Alzheimer’s, accounting for two-thirds of cases in the United States. One reason is women live longer than men. Research has suggested that increased estrogen levels also may lead to a significantly higher risk of the disease in women. Estrogen levels typically fall after menopause, but rise again in some women.
“Certain medications can provide the brain with some of the neurotransmitters it needs so it can function with the depleted number of cells it has, and you can slow clinical symptoms such as memory loss,” said Claire Flaherty, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Hershey Medical Center.
A build-up of amyloid beta plaque in the brain is the hallmark of Alzheimer’s. Nearly 80 clinical trials are assessing its role in the disease and its association with neuron mechanisms, immune function, blood flow and other parameters, Eslinger said.
Early detection of Alzheimers’ allows patients to receive treatment before symptoms become too burdensome and to enroll in clinical trials of new therapies. Both medical and non-medical management of Alzheimer’s can help patients live longer while maintaining quality of life.
But many patients end their lives at home, increasing the burden caregivers face. Some people, especially women, have to leave work to care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s.
Recognizing the problem, state and local governments are preparing plans to care for a lot more Alzheimer’s patients, whose numbers are expected to triple over the next 30 years, Flaherty said.
“We also have an extreme shortage of geriatric specialists in this country, and those who are assigned to work with these Alzheimer’s patients are not always that well trained,” she said. “These are things that are now being addressed.”