As the nation's population ages, Alzheimer's disease and other degenerative brain illnesses are claiming American lives in record numbers. In the coming decades, this trend is only projected to intensify: By 2060, experts predict rates of Alzheimer's disease will double.
Yet, despite these grim statistics, physicians and scientists find a reason for hope. Fueled by unprecedented government funding, researchers are implementing novel approaches to finding a cure. Simultaneously, new medications show promise in slowing Alzheimer's devastating progression.
At this critical moment for treatment and research, how do regular Americans perceive the Alzheimer's threat? To find out, we surveyed nearly 1,000 individuals, most of who knew someone directly affected by the disease. We then paired that data with information from leading research organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Alzheimer's Association. Our findings present a compelling account of Alzheimer's impacts and the various ways that individuals and families adapt to the disease.
A Terrible Toll
We should begin by emphasizing Alzheimer's prevalence: Currently, over 5.8 million live with this illness, and roughly 487,000 people over the age of 65 are projected to develop the disease in 2019. These staggering rates reflect the widespread demographic change: As baby boomers grow older, millions of Americans are reaching the age range at which Alzheimer's symptoms typically emerge. Additionally, medical advances have made it easier to detect the disease in early stages, increasing rates of diagnosis as a result.
Even compared to other common causes of death, Alzheimer's takes a hefty toll among the elderly. With more than 120,000 Americans aged 65 and older succumbing to Alzheimer's in 2017, the illness led to more deaths in this age range than diabetes, influenza, or pneumonia.
Women were particularly likely to develop Alzheimer's: Among 45-year-old female Americans, roughly 1 in 5 were predicted to suffer from the disease. This difference between the genders is partially attributable to the fact that women live longer and, therefore, face additional years of vulnerability. But new research also indicates that women may be more genetically susceptible as well. Certain harmful proteins are more likely to suffuse female brains, causing significant impairment.
Human memory naturally declines with age, and memory difficulties don't necessarily indicate the presence of Alzheimer's. Yet, among the respondents surveyed, about 1 in 10 reported experiencing confusion or memory loss more often or more intensely over the last year. In many cases, these experiences caused significant functional challenges. Among this group, for example, nearly half said they had reduced the number of chores they did around the house because of their confusion or memory loss.
Additionally, a substantial portion of respondents reporting memory problems said their difficulties interfered with their social and professional lives. As baby boomers remain in the workforce longer than prior generations, many will confront challenges of cognitive decline in their professional roles. Some research, however, indicates that sustained employment earlier in life can help stave off memory issues later, especially among women.
Our results also present another alarming trend: Among those experiencing more confusion or memory issues, fewer than half had spoken to their doctors about these problems. This finding may relate to the difficulty of distinguishing normal forgetfulness from the symptoms of an underlying illness. But this hesitation may have emotional origins as well. The prospect of discussing mental decline with a medical professional can seem both scary and sad.
Preoccupation and Prevention
The prevalence of degenerative brain diseases is not lost on most Americans: 92% of respondents reported some fear about developing an illness of this type. Moreover, some studies suggest that these fears are not tied to current memory problems: People inclined to worry about Alzheimer's often do so without experiencing any particular symptoms that would be cause for concern.
But if worries about brain diseases are quite common, many people question the value of preventative measures. Ten percent of respondents said nothing could be done to prevent brain diseases, while 28% said they were unsure whether effective prevention was possible.
While research in this area is continually evolving, experts do believe that certain activities and precautions may reduce one's risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer's. Exercise and brain games, for example, have been linked to lower rates of Alzheimer's in some large-scale studies. Perhaps because of this research, these activities were quite common among respondents who felt brain diseases could be prevented. Still, scientists note that the beneficial effects of these exercises are far from proven, with much more investigation still needed.
Given the prevalence of Alzheimer's and similar diseases, most respondents had a personal connection to these illnesses. More than 4 in 5 respondents said they knew someone with a brain disease, and more than a third said they had been caretakers for the person affected.
Among those who had cared for someone with a brain disease, most had witnessed the difficult declines that characterize the course of such illnesses. Seventy-six percent said the person had become confused about where they were, for example, while 69% reported that the person struggled to communicate effectively.
Understandably, respondents described significant emotional repercussions from witnessing these symptoms and providing regular care. Over two-thirds of caregivers reported emotional challenges, such as one man who described caring for his father as "agonizing." Guilt about being away from their loved one was another common feeling. To care for the ill person, caregivers regularly turned down social events, while some were even forced to change or quit their jobs. In fact, the CDC estimates that caregivers for people with brain diseases performed 18.4 billion hours of unpaid work in 2017.
Hard Truths and Hope
Our research presents an unsparing account of the difficulties of brain diseases and the risks that they pose for the broader American public. Sadder still, these findings illustrate the impacts of these diseases beyond those who fall ill, with caregivers called on to make enormous sacrifices.
We wish, however, to close on a note of hope. Even in the most difficult circumstances, there are tangible steps you can take to mitigate the impacts of memory diseases. For caregivers, additional resources are available nationwide, from peer support groups to low-cost nonprofit services. If you feel overwhelmed or alone, there are others prepared to stand by you.
And if you're confronting memory loss or confusion in your own life, don't hesitate to contact a medical professional – or ask a trusted person to do so on your behalf. Within our own network of anti-aging specialists and physicians, we often serve patients experiencing memory loss or other cognitive challenges. Please contact us today to learn how we can help: If we can't serve your medical needs, we'll help you find someone who will.
Methodology and Limitations
The data shown above was compiled from several sources, specified in the sources section on each graphic shown above:
- Alzheimer's facts and figures were taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Alzheimer's Association's 2019 Facts and Figures report.
- Incidence rates about memory loss, confusion, and personal experiences related to memory loss were collected from data in the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). We used the most recent year's data (2018), released in August of 2019.
- Finally, to understand people's behaviors and opinions about preventative measures, the impacts of taking care of people with brain diseases, and personal stories, we surveyed 989 people. Of those 989 surveyed, 824 said they currently know or have known someone with a degenerative brain disease like Alzheimer's.
Because both the survey we conducted and the CDC's BRFSS data are based on self-report, we understand they may be susceptible to biases found in any survey, such as recency or selection biases. We made every attempt to display our data as fairly and accurately as possible, although we do not mean to make medical claims by any of the data shown above.
Fair Use Statement
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