Alzheimer’s disease 4th leading cause of death in Utah; Southern Utah ‘hit harder’ than rest of state

ST. GEORGE — Significantly more people in Utah suffer from Alzheimer’s disease than in the rest of the U.S., and in Washington County, that number is even higher.

Ronnie Daniel, executive director of the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, spoke at Intermountain Healthcare’s weekly LiVe Well lecture series on Friday about what Alzheimer’s disease is and how Utahns are affected.

In Utah, over 33,000 people are living with Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that causes serious memory, thinking and behavior issues.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., but is the fourth leading cause of death in Utah.

Even in Utah, some places are affected more than others. Across the state, 10% of the senior population is affected by Alzheimer’s, while in Washington County that number increases to 13.8%.

One reason that Alzheimer’s disease is more prevalent in Washington County may have to do with the county’s higher population of residents aged 65 and older. Statewide, that age group represents 17% of the population versus 34% in the county.

“Even if this isn’t the most populous county in the state, the impact of this county is going to be significantly higher than other parts of the state of Utah,” Daniel said.

Ronnie Daniel, executive director of the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, speaks at a LiVe Well Lecture, St. George, Utah, June 21, 2019 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

Women are also disproportionately affected by Alzheimer’s. Two out of three people with the disease are female, though little is known about why this is the case.

Not only are women more likely to have the disease, but they are also more likely to be a caregiver for someone who has it.

More than 16 million Americans are providing unpaid care to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and two-thirds of those caregivers are women.

Being a caregiver for a person with Alzheimer’s is often a very stressful experience. 60% of care providers rank their stress as high or very high, 40% report symptoms of depression and 41% have an annual household income of less than $50,000.

“The scariest statistic is that 36% of all caregivers end up dying before the person they’re caring for because they’re not caring for their own health and wellness,” Daniel said.

These caregivers put in an estimated 18.5 billion hours of unpaid care nationwide, which would be valued at $234 billion if they were paid. There are approximately 155,000 caregivers in Utah, who put in around 177 million hours of unpaid care.

“There’s a significant amount of effort being put forth by families, spouses and children caring for people with this disease,” Daniel said.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most expensive disease in the U.S. In 2019, it is estimated that the country will spend over $290 billion providing care for those with the disease, and that number is projected to increase to $1.1 trillion by 2050 if the growing rate of Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t slow.

The number of Alzheimer’s cases is increasing every year, which could be due to a number of factors. One in three seniors in the U.S. die from some form of dementia, killing more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

From 2000 to 2017 the number of Alzheimer’s disease cases increased by 145%, which may be due to an increased life expectancy.

“Part of the reason why that increases is that we’re living longer. Fifty years ago the average lifespan for a man was 65-years-old, today it’s 85. And the longer we live, the greater our risk for this disease,” Daniel said.

One reason that the situation is worsening in Washington County may have to do with a lack of providers who are trained to diagnose and treat dementia.

Ronnie Daniel, executive director of the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, discusses the affects of Alzheimer’s disease on the brain at a LiVe Well Lecture, St. George, Utah, June 21, 2019 | Photo by Mikayla Shoup, St. George News

“In Washington County, with our high percent of older adults, I think the situation is worsening because there’s a lack of proper diagnosis,” said Mike Miller, the Southwest regional manager of Utah chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “There just probably aren’t enough service providers for individuals, and that means the funnel is very small, and wait times are long.”

Because Utah has a higher rate of Alzheimer’s than the rest of the U.S., the association has created a four-step goal list.

They plan to increase awareness of the disease, provide better support for family care providers through support groups and lobbying on a national level for funding, create a dementia confident workforce in hospitals and other health care facilities, and work on expanding research on the disease within the state.

The association worked with state representative Lee Perry to pass the Silver Alert Program bill this year, which requires the Department of Public Safety to send a “silver alert” notification for missing and endangered adults with dementia, much like the amber alert does for missing children.

The association has also worked to fund research like the SPRINT MIND study in Utah, which found that keeping a person’s systolic blood pressure below 120 can reduce their risk of dementia by 35%.

They also recommend the 10 “tips for loving your brain,” which includes behaviors that can help to reduce the risk of dementia such as exercise, a balanced diet and learning new things.

Read more: 10 tips for loving your brain during Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month

The Utah chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association will be hosting two Walk to End Alzheimer’s events in the fall to help fund their efforts. The Walk to End Alzheimer’s in St. George will take place Sept. 14 at Dixie State University and the walk in Cedar City will take place Oct. 12 at Southern Utah University.

A Stars and Stripes Barbecue July 2 will take place at Wentworth at the Meadows from 5-6 p.m. in order to recruit new walkers and teams. People of all ages are invited to participate, and those who wish to attend the barbecue must RSVP by June 28 at 435-238-4998 or [email protected].

The Alzheimer’s Association offers a free 24-hour helpline to answer questions for patients and caregivers about the disease and managing the disease, as well as help during a crisis. The helpline can be reached at 800-272-3900.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews | @MikaylaShoup

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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