Alzheimer’s disease is a more than just a condition that robs people of their memories; it also kills – including about 1,900 New Jerseyans a year.
According to data from the Health Indicators Warehouse, 21.4 of each 100,000 people in the state died of Alzheimer’s in 2010. That’s among the lowest rates in the nation. Adjusting for age – Alzheimer’s and related dementia diseases affect senior citizens almost exclusively – New Jersey’s rate of Alzheimer’s deaths was 17.7 per 100,000. For the population age 65 and older, the rate jumps to 157, and for those 85 and older, it soars to 734 deaths per 100,000.
“Age is the biggest risk factor,” said Lawrence B. Brooks, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Greater New Jersey Chapter and a member of the New Jersey Alzheimer’s Disease Study Commission. The incidence of the disease is 1 in 9 among people over age 65 and 1 in 3 for those over age 85.
Brooks said the number of people with Alzheimer’s is increasing and is likely to continue to climb, primarily as the baby boomers – the largest generation, encompassing those born between 1946 and 1964 – continue to reach their senior years. Part of the increase also is probably attributable to greater awareness of Alzheimer’s, prompting more people to see a doctor and get a diagnosis and treatment.
The Health Indicators data shows the number of Medicare beneficiaries with Alzheimer’s and related dementia rose rom about 128,500 in 2007 to 132,000 in 2011.
The disease may start with mild memory losses and affects more of a person’s functioning – both mental and physical — as it progresses. It may be a primary or secondary cause of death.
“As the brain deteriorates, a person truly loses the ability to swallow, to eat,” Brooks said.
Given that Alzheimer’s strikes mostly senior citizens, it is not surprising that some of the state’s highest death rates from the disease are in counties like Ocean and Cape May, where more than 20 percent of the population is made up of those age 65 and older. But Sussex County had the highest age-adjusted death rate – more than 32 per 100,000.
With the physical, emotional and – Alzheimer’s is the most costly chronic illness to treat in the United States – financial impacts of the disease, the recently constituted state study commission could play an important role in how New Jersey copes with increasing caseloads. Created by the Legislature in 2011, its members were only recently appointed. It is expected to hold its first meeting next month and will get help from staff from the state’s Division of Aging Service, according to Nicole Brossoie, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services.
Brooks said he hopes the commission will address not only the need for services for those suffering from Alzheimer’s, but also the needs of those who care for them.