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Report: 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer's; by 2050, seniors with condition expected to number 13.8 million

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An estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, says a new report, which is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only cause of death among the country's top 10 for which there's no prevention, cure or way of slowing it down.

That's according to the latest report from the Alzheimer's Association, which said the disease will cost the U.S. about $203 billion this year.

Alzheimer's is a form of dementia, which refers to a variety of conditions that develop when neurons – nerve cells in the brain – die or begin to malfunction. The report's authors explained:

The death or malfunction of neurons causes changes in one's memory, behavior and ability to think clearly. In Alzheimer's disease, these brain changes eventually impair an individual's ability to carry out such basic bodily functions as walking and swallowing. Alzheimer's disease is ultimately fatal.

Common symptoms of Alzheimer's include memory loss, challenges problem-solving, lapses in judgment and social withdrawal.

Among the report's findings:

  • 1 in 3 seniors in the U.S. dies with Alzheimer's or dementia; in many of those deaths, Alzheimer's or dementia is at least a factor.
  • The rate of Alzheimer's-related deaths jumped 68 percent between 2000 and 2010; in California, there are more than 29 Alzheimer's deaths for every 100,000 people.
  • Most people with the condition are women.
  • An estimated 480,000 Californians have Alzheimer's; by 2025, that number is expected to be around 660,000.
  • Most people with Alzheimer's are 75 and older.
  • Older black people and older Latinos are two times and one-and-a-half times more likely than white people, respectively, to have Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
  • By 2025, the number of people 65 and older with Alzheimer's is projected to reach 7.1 million; by 2050, 13.8 million.
  • By 2050, the cost of caring for people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia is expected to reach $1.2 trillion.

Dr. Phyllis Hayes-Reams, the medical director of outpatient hospice care and palliative services at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center, said people experiencing memory issues ought to be proactive about talking to a health provider.

"We're still in a situation where there's this idea that memory problems are a normal, expected condition as we get older," she said. "That's one myth that's still out there, as well as the idea that memory problems are all in one bucket."

The moment someone, or a loved one, notices a lapse in memory, she or he should go see a specialist, said Hayes-Reams – even if it doesn't seem like a big deal.

"Alzheimer's is one of the more prevalent types of dementia, but there are different types, and there are some that are somewhat reversible," she said.

One preventive measure for non-Alzheimer's dementia, she said, is to keep blood pressure and blood sugar under control – something she noted is true particularly for communities of color.

"Patients who have high blood pressure, have diabetes, they're at more risk for stroke," said Hayes-Reams, explaining that stroke can trigger dementia. "People are having strokes and they're ending up with memory problems as well."

Caregiving for people living with Alzheimer's and other dementia is both complex and expensive, but Hayes-Reams said there are some community organizations and programs that aim to ease the cost for people living in low-income communities, although "there's a need for more."

Participating in clinical trials can be an "excellent avenue" toward obtaining care for Alzheimer's, she added, potentially at a reduced cost.

The authors of the Alzheimer's Association's report said besides advanced age, risk factors for developing the disease include having a family history of the condition, poor heart health, low education and traumatic brain injury.

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