If we could eliminate Alzheimer's disease tomorrow, we could save 500,000 lives per year, based on this new information. —Melissa Lee, Utah chapter of the Alzheimer's Association

SALT LAKE CITY — A new report reveals that Alzheimer's disease is likely to blame for far more deaths than previously thought.

The mind-numbing illness may actually be the third-leading killer, behind heart disease and cancer, according to the study, published Wednesday in the journal Neurology. Alzheimer's currently ranks sixth in the deadliest diseases in the United States.

The study, led by researchers at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, found that annual death rates attributed to Alzheimer's should be closer to 500,000, rather than the 85,000 reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When most other diseases decrease over time with additional research and treatment measures, Alzheimer's disease increased 68 percent between 2000 and 2010.

While Alzheimer's — a diagnosis that can only be confirmed with 98 percent certainty — is rarely listed as a cause of death, autopsies of more than 2,500 brains donated to research provided a more definite diagnosis and proof that more are dying from the disease.

"If we could eliminate Alzheimer's disease tomorrow, we could save 500,000 lives per year, based on this new information," said Melissa Lee, spokeswoman for the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. She said the news puts more importance on finding a cure.

Utahns can get involved in Alzheimer's research by enlisting themselves or family members with disease symptoms — increasing forgetfulness or mild confusion and even loss of memory — in clinical trials. Lee said such work can lead to better identification of what causes Alzheimer's.

"If we can figure out what causes it, we can figure out how to cure it," she said.

The increasing number of deaths associated with Alzheimer's has organizations like Lee's urging support in the form of donations for research.

In light of the latest findings, USAgainstAlzheimer's, an advocacy group fighting for a cure by 2020, is urging Congress to double its funding of research to prevent deaths.

Alzheimer's disease research receives a fraction of the research funding dedicated to cancer, the nation's second leading cause of death. Even doubling the approximately $550 million it receives annually, research on Alzheimer's would still be funded at less than 20 percent of the level that cancer is, said USAgainstAlzheimer's chairman and co-founder, George Vradenburg.

"With this much at stake, it is simply unconscionable for Congress not to make a dramatic increase in investment in life-saving Alzheimer's research," he said.

The effects of an increasing prevalence of the disease, as evidenced with the new research, could mean more lives lost, particularly for Utahns, who are living longer and are generally healthier, Lee said.

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"Unfortunately, we are going to be affected more than other states," she said, adding that people who live past age 60 now have a one in three chance of developing the disease, which contributes to death, albeit a slow one.

"Alzheimer's disease is going to slowly stop your body from functioning the way it needs to in order to survive," Lee said. "It affects your brain. It's going to affect your bodily functions. It's gong to affect the way you live. You're going to stop being able to be independent. You're going to need help with every aspect of your life."

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com, Twitter: wendyleonards