What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Estimates vary, but experts suggest that more than 5 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., but recent estimates indicate that the disorder may rank third, just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people.
Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia among older adults.
Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning—thinking, remembering, and reasoning—and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.
Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s an overall term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with a decline in memory or other thinking skills severe enough to reduce a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases. Vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke, is the second most common dementia type.
Dementia ranges in severity from the mildest stage, when it is just beginning to affect a person’s functioning, to the most severe stage, when the person must depend completely on others for basic activities of daily living.
Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains change as we age. Most of us eventually notice some slowed thinking and occasional problems with remembering certain things. However, serious memory loss, confusion and other major changes in the way our minds work may be a sign that brain cells are failing.
The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is difficulty remembering newly learned information.
Alzheimer’s changes typically begin in the part of the brain that affects learning. As Alzheimer’s advances through the brain it leads to increasingly severe symptoms, including disorientation, mood and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory loss and behavior changes; and difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking.
People with memory loss or other possible signs of Alzheimer’s may find it hard to recognize they have a problem. Signs of dementia may be more obvious to family members or friends. Anyone experiencing dementia-like symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible.
People with memory and thinking concerns should talk to their doctor to find out whether their symptoms are due to Alzheimer’s or another cause, such as stroke, tumor, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disturbances, side effects of medication, an infection, or a non-Alzheimer’s dementia. Some of these conditions may be treatable and possibly reversible.
An estimated 5.3 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease in 2015.
- An estimated 5.1 million are age 65 and older, and approximately 200,000 individuals are under age 65 (younger-onset Alzheimer’s).
- Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s are women. Of the 5.1 million people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s in the U.S., 3.2 million are women and 1.9 million are men.
The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias will grow each year as the size and proportion of the U.S. population age 65 and older continue to increase. By 2025, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to reach 7.1 million—a 40 percent increase from 2015. By 2050, the number of people age 65 and older with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple, from 5.1 million to a projected 13.8 million, barring the development of medical breakthroughs to prevent or cure the disease.
In 2015, an estimated 700,000 people in the U.S. age 65 and older will die with Alzheimer’s.
As the population of the U.S. ages, Alzheimer’s is becoming a more common cause of death. Although deaths from other major causes have decreased significantly, official records indicate that deaths from Alzheimer’s disease have increased significantly. Between 2000 and 2013, deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s disease increased 71 percent.
Alzheimer’s is the only disease among the top 10 causes of death in America that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed.
Cost of Alzheimer’s
In 2014, friends and family of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias provided an estimated 17.9 billion hours of unpaid care.
- Approximately two-thirds of caregivers are women and 34 percent are age 65 or older.
- Forty-one percent of caregivers have a household income of $50,000 or less.
- Over half of primary caregivers of people with dementia take care of parents.
- It is estimated that 250,000 children and young adults between ages 8 and 18 provide help to someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia.
Alzheimer’s takes a devastating toll on caregivers. Nearly 60 percent of Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers rate the emotional stress of caregiving as high or very high; about 40 percent suffer from depression. Due to the physical and emotional toll of caregiving, Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers had $9.7 billion in additional health care costs of their own in 2014.
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the costliest chronic diseases to society.
- In 2015, the direct costs of caring for those with Alzheimer’s will total an estimated $226 billion, with half of the costs borne by Medicare.
- Average per-person Medicare spending for people age 65 or older with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is three times higher than for seniors without dementia.
- Nearly one in every five Medicare dollars is spent on people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. In 2050, it will be one in every three dollars.