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Brown: Alzheimer’s deaths rising — and why I take it personally

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My grandfather died from Alzheimer’s disease nearly 30 years ago after a long, cruel battle with the illness that robbed him of his once keen mind.

That’s why it caught my attention when the Alzheimer’s Association reported Tuesday that deaths attributed to the disease are on the rise in Illinois in keeping with the national trend.

Illinois recorded 3,266 deaths from Alzheimer’s disease in 2014, a nearly 12 percent increase over 2013, according to the group’s 2017 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report.

My own quick check with the Illinois Department of Public Health found that Alzheimer’s deaths jumped another 13 percent to 3,688 in Illinois in 2015, the most recent data available.

Another sentence in the press release also grabbed me:

“Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the only disease in the top 10 . . . WITHOUT A WAY TO PREVENT, CURE OR EVEN SLOW ITS PROGRESSION.”

Blame me for putting those discouraging last words in capital letters.

All these years after my maternal grandfather first fell ill with the disease, there’s still not much the medical community can offer to those who are afflicted.

I will admit I hoped, even expected, it would be different by the time my retirement years started to come into view.


Alzheimer’s was always a great concern of my mother, who feared she would succumb to the disease in the same way as her father, unable to recognize those around him.

Mom died two years ago at age 80 without any significant signs of dementia, which doesn’t mean the disease might not have caught up to her if she’d lived longer. To my knowledge, she was never tested.

Nancy Rainwater, spokesperson for the Greater Illinois Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, knew where I was coming from.

Her maternal grandparents both died of the disease, as did her mother.

“As I age, I think about it more and more,” said Rainwater, who added that it motivates her to work harder to educate the public about the disease.

Family history is considered a risk factor for the most common form of Alzheimer’s disease, although doctors are looking primarily for first-degree relatives — parents or siblings — with the disease.

A less common type of early onset Alzheimer’s — characterized by victims as young as their 30s — has been shown to have a direct genetic link.

Longevity is considered the greatest risk factor for the more common form of the disease.

That’s one of the reasons the medical community believes we are seeing more reported instances of Alzheimer’s deaths.

As the health profession becomes more adept at fighting heart disease, cancer and other major causes of death, Americans are more likely to reach an age where the dementia of Alzheimer’s can catch up with us.

It’s also believed the number of reported Alzheimer’s deaths are increasing because doctors are more cognizant that it is a contributing cause of death even when it is not the immediate cause.

For instance, individuals with severe dementia have problems swallowing, which can cause pneumonia. In the past, doctors might have listed pneumonia as the cause of a patient’s death without making note of the underlying Alzheimer’s disease.

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates there will be 220,000 persons aged 65 and older who will suffer from Alzheimer’s disease in Illinois in 2017. That number is expected to grow to 260,000 by 2025.

Yet Alzheimer’s disease still doesn’t receive the same amount of research money as other serious diseases, Rainwater said.

Dr. Concetta Forchetti, medical director for the Memory Disorder Clinic at Amita Health, said that while it is true doctors have no scientifically proven cure, individuals are not necessarily powerless against Alzheimer’s.

A healthy lifestyle — a good diet, exercise and an active social life — has been shown to delay the onset of dementia, Forchetti said.

Better get to the gym tonight.