5 things to know: 2020 saw spike in deaths from Alzheimer’s, dementia

Some racial minorities unlikely to seek care for memory problems, national survey says


The broad disruption to Americans’ lifestyles that the coronavirus caused likely led to an increase in deaths among people with Alzheimer’s disease — and that loss of life was not directly due to COVID-19 but, rather, to associated factors such as social isolation, according to an annual report about Alzheimer’s disease.

And although Black Americans are twice as likely as their white counterparts to develop Alzheimer’s — and Hispanic Americans are 50% more likely than white Americans — certain people of color have the most concerns about receiving medical care for dementia, according to the report, which included a special section on race, ethnicity and Alzheimer’s this year.

“Despite ongoing efforts to address health and health care disparities in Alzheimer’s and dementia care, survey results show there is still a lot of work to be done,” Carl Hill, the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, said in a news release.

Colorado saw 850 more deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia in 2020 compared to averages over the past five years, according to the news release.

Here’s a look at the findings in the 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report put out by the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit health organization that works to accelerate progress in the prevention and cure of Alzheimer’s.

Pandemic appears to have exacerbated deaths

Alzheimer’s disease is a memory-affecting condition that worsens over time, and dementia is a general term for loss of memory and other mental abilities that interferes with daily life.

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, but there are many kinds, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

There were at least 42,000 more deaths from Alzheimer’s and other dementias across the United States in 2020 compared with averages over the previous five years, according to the report. These were not deaths attributed to COVID-19 but to associated factors.

The Alzheimer’s death total for 2020 was 16% higher than anticipated, said Jim Herlihy, a spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Colorado chapter.

Based on the prior five years, Colorado’s Alzheimer’s deaths in 2020 exceeded projections by about 23%, Herlihy said.

While there may not be a precise way to determine how much different coronavirus-related lifestyle changes affected deaths, researchers believe many factors contributed to the increased death rate.

“Beyond the health implications of the coronavirus itself, people living with Alzheimer’s are at greater risk because of the disruption in their routines, the social isolation from family and friends, the requirement to wear masks and wash hands, and so much more,” Amelia Schafer, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, said in the news release.

“These increased deaths are a clear sign that the disruption in lifestyle and related confusion are shortening the lives of many of our older adults living with dementia,” Schafer continued.

People of color distrust health care, survey says

Fewer than half of Black and Native Americans feel confident they have access to health care providers who understand their ethnic or racial background and experiences, and only about three in five Asian Americans and Hispanics likewise feel confident, according to the news release.

Nearly two-thirds of Black Americans surveyed believe that medical research is biased against people of color — a view shared by substantial numbers of Asian Americans (45%), Native Americans (40%) and Hispanic Americans (36%). Only half of Black Americans trust that a future cure for Alzheimer’s will be shared equally regardless of race, color or ethnicity.

Skepticism about memory care abounds

More than half of non-white Americans believe significant loss of memory or cognitive abilities is “a normal part of aging,” the news release said.

Hispanic, Black and Native Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to say they would not see a doctor if experiencing thinking or memory problems.

What can be done?

If people tell their doctor about thinking or memory issues, the physician can look at different factors besides Alzheimer’s that may be contributing to the situation, Herlihy said.

There are reversible causes of memory loss “that include certain medications, minor head trauma or injury, emotional disorders, vitamin B-12 deficiency and alcoholism,” Herlihy said.

Diagnosis clears an easier path forward

Perhaps the most important step people can take is getting a diagnosis, Herlihy said.

“About half of all Alzheimer’s cases are never diagnosed,” Herlihy said. “That means that loved ones may never fully understand what is happening to the individual, and the symptoms can be mistaken or misinterpreted for personality changes or other things.”

By understanding the disease, family and friends can learn about medications that can help with symptoms, how to practice healthy lifestyles that may help extend a person’s cognitive health, and how to prepare for the future in terms of legal or financial aspects — as well as ensuring the safety of all involved, Herlihy said.

They can also take advantage of resources offered by the Alzheimer’s Association at no charge that include disease information and classes on topics such as communication techniques, legal and financial planning, and care at various stages of the disease, Herlihy said.

For more information, see the Alzheimer’s Association’s website.


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