U.S. Alzheimer’s Death Toll is Greater Than Expected, Similar to Cancer and Heart Disease Rates

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) caused an estimated 503,000 deaths in Americans 75 years of age and older in 2010, which would make the disease the third leading cause of death within the U.S., according to a study released in Neurology. To put that number in perspective, heart disease was responsible for almost 600,000 deaths in 2010 and cancer accounted for roughly 575,000, reported CNN.

Despite the “Contribution of Alzheimer disease to mortality in the United States” study results, the official number of AD deaths within the U.S. in 2010 was only 83,000. However, “the Alzheimer’s Association has been saying for a long time that that 80,000 figure is a gross undercount,” stated Alzheimer’s Association science program director Keith Fargo in an interview with CNN. According to Fargo, the study’s mortality rate is “much closer to the true number,” which demonstrates that AD is not “just about forgetfulness,” but is a “universally fatal brain disease.”

The reason for the official low estimate, according to the study’s lead author Bryan James, is that immediate causes of death are more likely to be reported. “Death certificates are well known to underreport deaths from Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia,” James told CNN. “The more immediate causes of death, such as pneumonia or heart attack are usually listed, and the underlying causes of death are usually left off.”

The study observed 2,566 individuals, aged 65 years or older and without dementia at the outset, for an average of eight years. During the course of the study, 559 participants developed AD, and approximately 400 died from the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease is the only “top ten” cause of death in the U.S. that does not have any way to prevent it, cure it, or slow its progression. AD deaths have increased 68 percent from 2000 to 2010, while deaths from heart disease have decreased. In addition, the association notes that the disease cost the U.S. $203 billion in 2013, but is expected to increase to an annual cost of $1.2 trillion by 2050.