Alzheimer's may be 3rd leading cause of death in U.S.

Published: Mar. 6, 2014 at 11:54 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 20, 2014 at 9:54 PM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - It may be nearly as lethal as heart disease and cancer, and it affects more and more of us by the day.

A new study finds Alzheimer's disease may be now the third leading cause of death in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently places the disease at sixth in causes of death.

Researchers say deaths from Alzheimer's disease are under-reported because medical examiners usually list only the more immediate cause of death such as a heart attack or pneumonia.

The experts say Alzheimer's itself doesn't kill people.

It causes the debilitation that leads to conditions that finally cause death.

It's estimated some 30,000 people are living with Alzheimer's disease or related dementia in Pima County.

One of nine Americans over the age of 65 has the disease or related dementia.

One in three Americans over the age of 85 will pass away with Alzheimer's or other dementia.

Advocates and researchers feel not enough money is being put into Alzheimer's research.

One reason may be under-reporting.

"It's under-reported, and that's part of the challenge where many clinicians are not putting that the cause of death is Alzheimer's disease because there's other complications that occur," says Alzheimer's Association Southern Arizona Regional Director Kelly Raach.

Alzheimer's is devastating to the patients and those who care for them, usually a loved one.

"Of the top 10, it's the only one without an effective treatment or cure. We don't have survivors of Alzheimer's disease," Raach says.

There are treatments for symptoms of the disease, but no cure.

The Alzheimer's Association chapter here in southern Arizona offers assistance to patients and their caregivers.

Raach says the most important message is that they don't have to do it alone.

"We have programs for people living in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease as well as for their caregivers throughout the disease progression," Raach says.

On the medical side, doctors and researchers in Tucson are not surprised that the new study finds Alzheimer's may be the third leading cause of death behind heart disease and cancer.

At this point it's believed that nearly 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's.

As the population ages, that number is expected to rise.

University of Arizona Professor of Neurology Dr. Geoffrey Ahern calls that "very very scary."

"By 2050 there could be a very very great number of patients with Alzheimer's disease. That's why it's very important for us to try to come up with some type of treatment that can either arrest the disease or, better yet, cure it and perhaps cure it before it even starts," he says.

Raach says it's estimated it will take about $4 billion a year for 10 years to develop the medications need to fight the epidemic.

Ahern says there should be more research into what causes Alzheimer's and research to develop treatments.

Ahern says helping patients and their loved ones is the overriding reason for him to want to find treatments and a cure, but he says those concerned about our society, our culture and our economy also should want to take action.

"If Alzheimer's disease and the other dementias continue unabated and continue to progress and the population ages, a greater and greater proportion of the population will be demented. Who is going to take care of them? How many are there? What's the ratio of demented people to non-demented people? If you got to the point where a large proportion or a significant proportion of your population suffered from dementia, what does that do to not only to your culture and your society, but also the economics of that society?" Dr. Ahern asks.

The Alzheimer's Association Helpline is 1-800-272-3900.

The Southern Arizona Regional Alzheimer's Association will hold a conference in Tucson on Wednesday, March 12.

There is a fee.

Click here to find out more.

The study is published in the journal "Neurology."