From Our 2012 Archives

1 in 7 People With Alzheimer's Lives Alone

New Report Paints Grim Picture; Disease to Cost $200 Billion in U.S. This Year

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 8, 2012 -- One in seven people with Alzheimer's disease lives alone.

This is one of the more stark findings from the 2012 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures, an annual report released by the Alzheimer's Association.

The new report also looks at the costs of caring for people with Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. In 2012, this cost will reach $200 billion.

According to the report, about 800,000 people with Alzheimer's live alone, and as many as 50% of them don't have an appointed caregiver.

This can happen for many reasons. "People become isolated, lose a spouse, or may choose to live alone in later life," says William Thies, PhD. He is the chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer's Association.

As a result, their deterioration isn't noticed. These individuals risk a late or missed diagnosis and are also more likely to wander off, fall, and even die compared with people with Alzheimer's who don't live alone.

Alzheimer's Is a 'Public Health Emergency'

"Alzheimer's has been a public health crisis and is now a public health emergency," says Richard S. Isaacson, MD. He is a neurologist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "These numbers are shocking and these numbers are scary."

But we are not powerless. He says that prevention should be a key focus. Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, listening to music, and being socially engaged can all help lower risk for Alzheimer's and protect the brain, he says.

"By 2050, the entire Medicare budget will be required to care for Alzheimer's patients, leaving nothing for any other diseases," says Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, in an email. He is the associate director of the Mount Sinai Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in New York City.

In South Korea, care of people with dementia is now a mandatory course in the high school curriculum, he says. "We should at least follow the Koreans' lead so that we and our parents have some hope of dignity in our later years."

A Race Against Time

Alzheimer's disease affects 5.4 million Americans, including one in eight people older than 65. It is the most common type of dementia and the fifth leading cause of death for people aged 65 and older. Symptoms such as memory loss, confusion, and behavior changes develop gradually and worsen with time. Eighty percent of care for people with Alzheimer's is provided at home via a family member.

While there is no cure for Alzheimer's and no treatment that can slow the disease, some treatments may temporarily improve symptoms for some people. Getting a diagnosis also brings health care and caregiving issues to the forefront and allows important decisions to be made.

The pressure is on to find a cure for Alzheimer's. "Much hope is pinned on early diagnosis and the development of disease-modifying medications that can change the underlying course of the disease," Thies says. "This is exciting because it opens up the possibility that we can identify Alzheimer's disease before someone gets it and treat it to avoid stage later stages of dementia that are so disabling and costly."

SOURCES: Richard S. Isaacson, MD, neurologist, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida.William Thies, PhD, chief medical and scientific officer, Alzheimer's Association.Sam Gandy, MD, PhD, associate director, Mount Sinai Alzheimer's Disease Research Center, New York City.Alzheimer's Association: "2012 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures."

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