What Does Death from “Complications of Alzheimer’s” Really Mean?

The deaths of movie actor Gene Wilder, women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt and Car Talk radio host Tom Magliozzi all were attributed to complications of Alzheimer’s disease.

These high profile deaths—and the unusual attribution to Alzheimer’s disease complications—may have raised questions about how people with the disease actually succumb. In practice, few people die directly from Alzheimer’s disease. But as the brain cells begin to die, other systems in the body begin to debilitate.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, a person with Alzheimer’s in the last year of life will have very little verbal output, be completely dependent for all aspects of daily living and deal with episodes of aspiration and infections.

Aspiration—or inhaling of food or liquid—can lead to pneumonia. Those with Alzheimer’s disease may become bedridden, increasing the risk of clots. Weight loss and other complications can lead to weakened immune systems. Yet often these complications—pneumonia, stroke or infection—are listed as the sole cause of death.

In a 2014 study published in Neurology, study author Bryan James, PhD, a researcher with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, reported that death from the disease is much more common than statistics show.

“Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are under-reported on death certificates and medical records,” he said in an interview published on ehospice.com. “Death certificates often list the immediate cause of death, such as pneumonia, rather than listing dementia as an underlying cause.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists Alzheimer’s disease as the sixth leading cause of death; this ranking comes solely from what is detailed on death certificates. James’ research found that, if properly attributed, it would rank much higher.

Advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease can last up to two years.

Gene Wilder taught us to laugh. Pat Summit taught us to win. Tom Magliozzi taught us a little about cars and a lot about life. But in their deaths, they have raised the awareness of the complications of Alzheimer’s that can prove fatal.

 

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Sources:
National Institute on Aging – https://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/features/alzheimers-disease-and-end-life-issues
Alzheimer’s Reading Room – http://www.alzheimersreadingroom.com/2016/03/alzheimers-death.html