Consider a hypothetical 70-year-old woman; she could be your mother, your sister, your wife. Call her Margaret. She’s becoming ever-more forgetful; one day she gets lost on her way home from the grocery store. A neurologist diagnoses Alzheimer’s.
Over the next five years, Margaret’s thinking continues to decline. She speaks less, confuses words, falls often. She needs a wheelchair, becomes incontinent. No longer able to manage her care, you move her to a nursing home. A year later, the disease has spread to the part of Margaret’s brain that controls swallowing; she has difficulty eating. Because of this she “aspirates” her food — bits of it enter her lungs, and Margaret develops pneumonia. Within weeks, her lungs stop working, and Margaret dies.
Margaret’s story is a difficult one, but common. It also illustrates a conundrum: Did Margaret die of pneumonia, or Alzheimer’s?
On some level, the answer doesn’t matter much: death is death. But as a matter of public health, the answer is deeply important: funding for medical research, new treatments and ultimately, someday, a cure, tends to flow toward the most widespread and deadly diseases. That’s why a new study out this week is getting so much attention; should its findings become widely accepted, they could substantially increase the pace and effectiveness of Alzheimer’s research in the U.S.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, confirmed what clinicians and researchers have long assumed: Alzheimer’s deaths have been greatly underreported.
The research found that 500,000 people die each year from Alzheimer’s — more than five times the number most recently reported by the CDC. That makes Alzheimer’s the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. Currently the CDC ranks Alzheimer’s sixth as a cause of mortality, with 84,000 deaths reported on death certificates.
The new report’s fuller accounting of Alzheimer’s deaths reinforces a basic but frequently overlooked fact: The illness is entirely fatal. A progressive brain disease that gradually impairs memory, reasoning and personality, Alzheimer’s eventually damages all brain functions, so that even walking, eating and breathing become impossible. Alzheimer’s kills because the brain is no longer able to keep the body alive. Continue reading