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March 15, 2019

Dementia deaths have tripled since 2000. See the rise, charted.

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    The number of dementia deaths in the United States more than tripled between 2000 and 2017, from 83,694 deaths to 261,914, according to a report released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

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    For the report, researchers used data from death certificates from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, examining deaths from four types of dementia:

    • Alzheimer's disease;
    • ·vascular dementia;
    • unspecified dementia; and
    • ·other degenerative diseases of the nervous system.

    The researchers found that Alzheimer's disease accounted for 46.4% of the total deaths due to dementia in 2017, down from 59.2% in 2000. The researchers also found that deaths related to vascular dementia increased significantly, from 0.3% of dementia deaths in 2000 to 6.2% in 2017. (One complicating factor in evaluating trends, however, is that many deaths, including 38.9% of those in 2017, were attributed only to "unspecified dementia.")

    Overall, dementia is expected to affect 14 million people over the age of 65 by 2060, according to CDC.

    The researchers acknowledged that using death certificate data had limitations. According to Ellen Kramarow, lead author on the report and a health statistician for the Aging and Chronic Diseases Statistics Branch of NCHS, "The only information we have is what is written on the death certificate. It's not connected to the person's medical record. They may have other conditions. There's no way to know from the death certificate alone."

    Why dementia cases are rising

    One cause of the increase in dementia deaths in the United States is an aging population, Kramarow said. "If people live longer, they don't die of other causes, so they live to the point where the risk for dementia is higher," she said.

    Chad Hales, an assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine’s department of neurology, who was not involved in the report, said the best way to diagnose dementia is with good clinical history and exam, brain imaging, and lab studies to make sure no other conditions could be causing the symptoms.

    However, he said, "the current gold standard is postmortem diagnosis with neuropathological confirmation." Alzheimer's, for example, can be diagnosed after death by looking at sections of the brain under a microscope to find amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.

    Regardless of the type of dementia, Hales said, "the most important thing to recognize is that you're not alone. There are so many people affected by this disorder, yet at times, patients and families feel isolated. We have to get past the stigma of this disease and recognize there are others out there who may be able help or provide insight on the disease and symptoms that it causes" (Powell, CNN, 3/14).

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