Deaths from Alzheimer's disease may be vastly underreported

March 5, 2014 (CHICAGO)

Millions of Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease. One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer's or another dementia. Bryan James Ph. D., a researcher at Rush University Medical Center, examines cadaver brains of individuals who had the disease.

A new study at Rush University Medical Center indicates that Alzheimer's disease may be one of the leading causes of death in the United States. The study shows the disease may be an underlying cause of five to six times as many deaths as currently reported.

"The numbers that we estimate from this study, about half a million deaths from Alzheimer's disease a year, would put it right behind heart disease and cancer," said Dr. James.

For much of Donald Ward's life, his mind meant so much.

"Really a brilliant person, so this is a huge thing, the dementia," said Anne Bonokollie, Ward's daughter.

Ward's daughter says the retired electrical engineer has 23 patents. When doctors indicated the 87-year-old had Alzheimer's, along with cancer, it was painful.

"It's probably more difficult to deal with than the cancer," said Bonokollie.

When it comes to the leading causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease and cancer top the list. Alzheimer's is No. 6, but a new study by Rush University researchers indicates that Alzheimer's should be higher.

Alzheimer's disease and other dementias are under-reported on death certificates and medical records. They often list pneumonia rather than listing dementia as an underlying cause.

Dr. James says an estimated 5 million people age 65 and older suffer from Alzheimer's disease. There are approximately 200,000 individuals younger than 65 who have younger-onset Alzheimer's. Highland Park resident Cheryl Levin-Folio's husband was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease shortly after they were married.

"I think it's more in tune to what's really happening, I think it's a more severe illness than people really realize," said Levin-Folio.

"There is no cure for Alzheimer's right now, there's no effective treatment," said Dr. James.

"As a society, think about what direction we need to go in terms of public policy, in terms of research funding, in terms of care and support with people with this disease," said Melanie Chavin, Alzheimer's Association Greater Illinois Chapter.

For those living with Alzheimer's, like Pati Hoffman, who was diagnosed when she was 54, the study is significant.

"I think it will bring a lot more attention, a lot more attention to not only to the disease but the early onset understanding," said Hoffman.

For Ward, his family, and caretaker, this study sends a message to others who may face this situation one day.

"I think the most important of that report should show families not to take dementia lightly, and most families do not," said Michael Gonzalez, Home Helpers.

"The study emphasizing this is really important, because, ah, you watch it progress," said Bonokollie.

Additional information:
24-hour Alzheimer's Help Line: 1-800-272-3900

Copyright © 2024 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.