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Alzheimer's-related deaths on the rise; still no treatment, cure or way to stop its rampant spread

Published: Tuesday, March 19 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

Martin Personick helps his wife Valerie, who has Alzheimer's, at their apartment in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer's disease or other dementia, according to a new report released Tuesday.

The rate is increasing, as nearly one in four was falling victim to death while coping with the mind-debilitating illness only a year ago, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The organization's 2013 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures shows that while deaths from other conditions, such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS and stroke, continue to experience significant declines, Alzheimer's deaths continue to rise, increasing 68 percent from 2000 to 2010.

"With deaths from this disease continuing to rise, it is clear that urgent, meaningful action is necessary," said Jack Jenks, executive director of the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "Our community needs to come together to fight against this disease, particularly as more and more people age into greater risk for developing a disease that today has no cure."

Alzheimer's disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and fifth-leading cause among adults age 65 and older. Among leading causes of death, it's the only one without a way to prevent, cure or slow its progression.

The report states that an estimated 450,000 people will die with Alzheimer's in the U.S. this year. In 2010, Alzheimer's was an underlying cause of death for about 84,000; however, the most common form of dementia doesn't always get reported correctly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among 70-year-olds with the disease, 61 percent are expected to die within a decade, and of those who are the same age but without the illness, only 30 percent will die within a decade, the report states.

Severe dementia, according to the association, can lead to complications such as immobility, swallowing disorders and malnutrition that significantly increase the risk of other serious conditions that lead to death. Pneumonia tends to be the most common condition attributed for death of a person with Alzheimer's disease.

The prevalence of the condition is expected to double in Utah and other Western states, including Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada, by 2025.

The growth is partly due to individuals surviving into their 80s, 90s and beyond because of advances in medicine, as well as social and environmental conditions, according to the report. The baby boomer generation is also aging into higher risk categories, Jenks said.

"Alzheimer's disease steals everything — steadily, relentlessly, inevitably. With baby boomers reaching the age of elevated risk, we do not have the time to do what we have always done," said Robert Egge, vice president of public policy for the Alzheimer's Association.

He said researchers and policymakers need to turn more attention to "the crisis at our doorstep," even funding a national plan of action to deal with the growing numbers of Americans impacted.

Similar commitments in the past have been made for deadly diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS, heart disease and others, leading to viable therapies and treatments that combat rising costs and ultimately save lives.

"There is so much to be done," Jenks said, adding that he believes increased awareness efforts are chipping away at the stigma that surrounds Alzheimer's disease and other dementia. "Alzheimer's disease is where cancer was in the 1950s and where AIDS was in the 1980s. We can get on top of this."

Utah state lawmakers have addressed the projected growth by adopting a five-year action plan in 2011 to increase awareness of the disease and provide additional resources for the tens of thousands of families that find themselves as caregivers to relatives with the condition, which develops as brain cells cease to function properly.

Caregivers provide daily support but also assist with various basic activities, including getting the patient in and out of bed, getting dressed, getting to and using the toilet, bathing and other hygiene habits, and food and nutritional needs.

The report, based on 2010 Census data and results of the Chicago Health and Aging Project study, estimates that caregivers of people with Alzheimer's disease typically end up providing care for more than a year and sometimes longer than five years.

With the rising number of patients comes a marked impact on state health care systems, as well as the families involved.

Approximately 137,000 families are believed to be assisting 32,000 Alzheimer's patients in Utah, according to the report. Nationally in 2012, 15.4 million family caregivers provided more than 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care, which is valued at about $216 billion.

In 2013, Alzheimer's is expected to cost the nation $203 billion. Expenditures are projected to rise to $1.2 trillion by 2050, as another person develops Alzheimer's every 68 seconds in the U.S., the report states.

Utah's plan for Alzheimer's disease also addresses where caregivers can find support and even respite in a time of need.

The Alzheimer's Association Utah chapter, which is heading up much of the local effort, offers a variety of educational and support resources for people living with Alzheimer's and their caregivers. More information can be found online at www.alz.org/utah.

E-mail: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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