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Alzheimer's disease cases expected to continue increasing

BY CAROLINE EGGERS - ceggers@perutribune.com

Paralleling the aging U.S. population, both the rate of Alzheimer’s disease and the awareness of the neurodegenerative process is becoming more common, according to the Alzheimer’s Association annual facts and figures report released last month.

“People are starting to understand that this isn’t just normal aging,” said Denise Saxman, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Indiana Chapter.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S., and an estimated 5.7 million Americans currently live with it or another form of dementia, according to Alzheimer’s Association data.

By 2025, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates the number will increase to 7.1 million.

In Indiana, the latest statistics available revealed a 14 percent increase to 2,513 deaths from Alzheimer’s disease between 2014 and 2015.

There has also been an increase in costs.

In 2018, the estimated Medicaid costs in Indiana related to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is $981 million – and the figure is expected to increase to $1.2 billion by 2025.

Nationally, the total cost of caring for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is estimated at $277 billion for 2018.

About $186 billion is the cost to Medicare and Medicaid, and out-of-pocket costs represent $60 billion of the total payments.

In 2017, the lifetime cost of care for a person living with dementia was $341,840, with about 70 percent of this cost was covered directly by families.

But Saxman hopes the new report could shed some light on how to change that scenario.  

“Diagnosing people early could save us money and reduce the burden on the economy and the caregivers,” Saxman said.

Alzheimer’s generally occurs in people over age 65, and gradually breaks down brain tissue, causing people to lose their memories. One person may only live a few years with the disease, while others may survive – and remain active – for several decades, depending on the level of care, according to WebMD.

Scientists aren’t sure what causes the brain damage, but the symptoms originate with two forms of nerve damage: nerve cells get tangles, or plaque builds up in the brain.

The disease progresses in seven stages, from normal outward behavior to repeating the same question, forgetting what month it is, or mistaking a spouse for a parent, all the way to losing the ability to independently eat or walk, according to WebMD.

Doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s through medical history, mental status, a physical and neurological exam, and tests – such as blood tests and brain imaging.

As soon as an individual has a suspicion that they may have Alzheimer’s or dementia, then they should have an honest conversation with their physician, according to Saxman, or call the association 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900.

There are many benefits to early diagnoses, according to the Alzheimer’s Association:

• A better chance of benefiting from treatment

• More time to plan for the future

• Lessened anxieties about unknown problems

• Increased chances of participating in clinical drug trials, helping advance research

• An opportunity to participate in decisions about care, transportation, living options, financial and legal matters

• Time to develop a relationship with doctors and care partners

• Benefit from care and support services, making it easier for them and their family to manage the disease. Alzheimer’s Navigator can help identify needs and create actions plans.

While the onset of Alzheimer’s disease cannot currently be stopped or reversed, there are still a few steps people can take to improve their mental outlook.

Healthy habits like diet and exercise can help – and socialization is a major key, as isolation often accompanies aging.

“Socialization improves cognition and overall wellbeing,” Saxman said. “Being around other people makes a big difference.”

Simple interactions like lunching with a friend, playing bridge with your neighbors, or anything that gets you out of the house is beneficial, according to Saxman.