Alzheimer’s disease death rates far worse than they tell us

Last month, we learned of the death of Tom Magliozzi. Tom and his brother Ray– known as “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers”hosted Car Talk, the informative and entertaining weekly radio program on National Public Radio.

Tom died of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). And his story perfectly illustrates why the AD death rates in this country are far worse than they tell us. I’ll explain more in a moment. But first, let’s back up…

Tom had a great mind in his prime. He and his brother shared useful car advice–starting with “don’t trust that mechanic”–for three decades. They provided me and others with many memorable Saturday mornings. I usually listened to their show while driving in the car, getting the weekend errands done.

The good brothers from Cambridge, MA reminded me of many of the characters with whom I grew up outside Boston. They delivered their show in that unmistakable, regional accent from the “other” Cambridge (not associated with Haa-vaad).

The Magliozzi brothers also had the indomitable “Yankee” humor, with an ethnic edge, that could be understated, clever, and “wise” (as in “wise guys”). But they were always hilarious. And they never resorted to profanity or obscenity, unfortunately so popular in contemporary comedy.

Tom graduated from nearby MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), so he knew his mechanics. But, as I mentioned earlier, Tom died of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Although, you probably wouldn’t know that fact by examining his death certificate.

You see, doctors rarely list AD itself as the immediate cause of death.

Why?

Patients with advanced AD often suffer from a host of complications that can be fatal. And busy doctors usually record these complications as cause of death on the patient’s death certificate, rather than AD.

For example, AD patients often spend too much time lying in bed, so they develop bedsores. Of course, bedsores often turn into fatal infections, especially in hospitals. Busy doctors then cite this complication on the death certificate instead of AD.

Pneumonia is actually the most common deadly complication of AD.

Remember, AD is a progressive, degenerative brain disease that can lead to difficulty swallowing. As a result, many advanced AD patients develop aspiration pneumonia. Here again, doctors list the complication as the cause of death…not the original disease that caused the complication. In fact, doctors list pneumonia as the cause of death in as many as two-thirds of patients who actually die from AD.

When you look at it this way, the actual mortality rate from AD may be five-to-six times higher than what statisticians report.

As it is, AD ranks as the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. according to CDC. And it’s said to affect more than 5 million Americans. In 2010 alone, nearly 85,000 people in the U.S. officially died from the disease.

But the real numbers are undoubtedly higher. Much, much higher.

Lately, I’ve been critical of the Alzheimer’s Association (AA) for parroting mainstream messages about more AD drugs and drug research. However, I was somewhat encouraged by a recent report that the AA is now funding three studies with non-drug therapies.

The first study will assess the effects of a 12-week program of exercise, cognitive stimulation, or a combination of both in older adults showing signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Several previous studies have suggested that exercise and cognitive stimulation do benefit men and women with cognitive impairments. But those studies occurred in a laboratory, under artificial circumstances that don’t translate to daily life experience. To be successful, most people will need to perform the practices on their own in real, everyday circumstances. So I was pleased to see the new AA-funded study will monitor participants who perform the exercises on their own.

A second study will evaluate the impact of an eight-week aerobic training program on the cognitive abilities of people with Type II diabetes. As you know, experts associate diabetes with some cognitive impairment. So this study will look at whether physical exercise can prevent these brain changes.

The third study will focus on improving daily life skills in people with dementia. The patients will complete repetitive tasks to strengthen their motor skills and preserve memory. For example, the participants will repeatedly practice pouring and mixing a beverage to help the brain’s “wiring” to complete the task correctly.

These three small studies offer viable, non-drug approaches to treating AD that can significantly impact daily life. But an AA spokesperson sold them short and said the approaches, “help advance a vision for a future where non-pharmacological interventions will be available and may be used hand-in-hand with drug therapies to prevent and treat Alzheimer’s Disease.”

Do you see the bias?

This AA spokesperson can’t even imagine a future without drugs. But it’s just a pipe dream, since we don’t have any proven, effective drug treatment for AD.

But why wait for some yet-to-be-discovered AD drug?

You can take steps to preserve and improve your cognitive function right now with vitamin E, vitamin D, and the B vitamins. Not to mention berberine, turmeric, and another herbal cognition booster that I’ll tell you about tomorrow.


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