Prevalence of Alzheimer’s Rises 10% in 5 Years

More than five million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, a 10 percent increase from the last official tally five years ago, and a number expected to more than triple by 2050, absent a cure, as the 85-and-over population soars and the baby boomers move into their late 60s and 70s.

The updated estimates, based on the rising occurrences of the disease with age, not new disease research, were released yesterday by the Alzheimer’s Association, along with a compilation of other information about a progressive brain disease that afflicts 13 percent, or one in eight people 65 and over, and 42 percent of those past 85.

Much of the report is a synthesis of existing research on the prevalence and costs of the disease. But the report includes the startling finding that 200,000 to 500,000 people younger than 65 have some form of early onset form of dementia, including a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease that strikes people in their 30s and 40s.

Mary Mittelman, an Alzheimer’s researcher at New York University, had mixed feelings about disproportionate attention to early onset Alzheimer’s disease. On the one hand, Dr. Mittelman said, these cases are such a small minority that she fears will take focus and resources “from the majority who are much older.” On the other, she said, “because of the ageism of this society” far too many people still believe dementia to be part of normal aging and attention to this younger group will clarify that it is a “real disease.”

Apart from early onset cases, the primary risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is age.

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, affects memory, reasoning and communication. In the advanced stage, people need help dressing, using the bathroom and eating. In the final stages, they cannot speak or recognize family members. The disease is ultimately fatal.

Currently, there are five drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration that slow the disease’s symptoms for 6 to 12 months in half the individuals who take them. Nine other drugs are in late-stage trials.

Yesterday’s report was released at a hearing in Washington, where Congress is considering a bipartisan bill to increase research money.

The report itemizes the cost to the federal government in Medicare spending. Care for a patient with dementia costs three times as much as care for the average beneficiary — $13,207 a year vs. $4,454 — and overall dementia-related Medicare costs are expected to more than double, to $189 billion, by 2015.

Other costs include the value of unpaid care provided by family and friends to the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients who live at home.

Estimates were based on research by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, which analyzed incidence of the disease locally. That incidence information was then extrapolated to national prevalence using census population figures and census projections.


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