June is national Alzheimer’s Awareness Month and an opportunity for the Office of Vital Records to examine its impact. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in Minnesota and the United States. It is the only cause of death among the top 10 in the nation that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed. In 2015, 1,782 deaths, 4.2% of all Minnesota deaths were caused by Alzheimer’s disease. In 2013 and 2014, 3.5% and 3.9% of all Minnesota deaths were Alzheimer’s related deaths. According to the American Alzheimer’s Association, deaths due to Alzheimer’s are expected to continue to increase dramatically.
Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease and the most common cause of dementia. It was first described by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, dementia, unlike Alzheimer’s, is not a specific disease but a neurocognitive disorder characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem-solving and other cognitive skills that affect a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. In Alzheimer’s disease, neuronal damage eventually affects parts of the brain that enable a person to carry out basic bodily functions such as walking and swallowing. Ninety-five percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias have one or more additional chronic conditions such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and others.
* The rising prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias has profound social and economic implications. More women than men have Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. Of the more than five million people age 65 and older diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the United States, 3.2 million are women and 1.9 million are men. This difference may be attributed to the higher longevity of women versus men rather than a gender-based predisposition. Every 67 seconds someone in the United States develops the disease.
* In 2015, an estimated 5.4 million Americans had Alzheimer’s and other dementias; the estimated cost to the nation was $226 billion. Researchers predict as many as 16 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s disease by 2050.
* Alzheimer’s disease is one of the costliest chronic diseases to society. 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. Medicaid payments are 19 times higher.
* Studies indicate that people age 65 and older survive an average of 4 to 8 years after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, yet some live as long as 20 years with the condition.
Cause of death for the record
According to the Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Health Statistics, 84,767 people died from Alzheimer’s disease in 2013 (the most recent year for which there is published data). Alzheimer’s is considered the cause of a person’s death if the death certificate lists the disease as the underlying cause of death. Minnesota Registration & Certification (MR&C) allows the certifying physician to record multiple causes of death for a decedent and to arrange them so that the causal or etiological relationship of the medical conditions that finally led to the death are recorded. The cause of death that initiated all other causes or conditions, as recorded by the physician, is the underlying cause of death for most deaths.
Specificity is important regardless of the cause of death
Proper completion of a cause of death is critical; families and public health need accurate, specific cause of death data. Specificity allows more precise coding of causes of death and better data for researchers and public health monitoring.
Unspecific diagnoses like ‘dementia’ or ‘stroke’ make it difficult to categorize deaths and develop statistical information on cause of for public health surveillance and research. Physicians who provide the cause of death should document the type(s) of Alzheimer’s, dementia, and any behavioral disturbances in the cause of death statement in the death record. Below are examples of well-constructed cause of death statements.
Line A - Adult failure to thrive
Line B - Alzheimer’s dementia
Line A - Natural causes
Line B - Alzheimer’s dementia, vascular dementia
Line C - Stroke
Line A - Adult failure to thrive/declining functional status
Cause of Death Part II - Alzheimer’s dementia, coronary artery disease