Mar 23, 2019 | Updated: 12:48 PM EDT

Dementia can kill you, but how?

Mar 16, 2019 02:01 PM EDT


It's no secret that dementia is a terrible disease, but a new government report shows that it's also an increasingly deadly one.

The report, which was released by the National Center for Health Statistics, found that the rate of Americans who have died from dementia more than doubled in less than two decades. The data specifically show that dementia caused 30.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2000, and it shot up to 66.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017. Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, made up 46 percent of dementia deaths in 2017.

Dementia is a term used to describe a group of conditions that affect thinking, memory, and behavior enough to interfere with a person's daily life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those conditions include Alzheimer's disease, Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal disorders, and vascular dementia, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). 

So why are people dying of dementia? It's likely due to a combination of factors, says David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, a neurologist and geriatric psychiatrist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.

"There's a 'silver tsunami,'" he says. "People are living longer and into old age, and we know that age is the single largest non-modifiable risk factor for dementia."

Plus, there is also more of an awareness of the disease among the medical community and people as a whole, Dr. Merrill says, even though the way that dementia is diagnosed hasn't changed. "It may be that dementia is being looked for more now than in the past," he says, leading to an uptick in numbers.

How does dementia kill you? When dementia becomes advanced, a person's brain tissue shrinks and they cannot care for themselves or even communicate, the NIA says. Over time, this can lead to a slew of deadly complications from the disease, Dr. Merrill says.

Many people with dementia have eating problems like difficulty swallowing. When a person can't swallow properly, food or drink can end up in their lungs, where it can cause pneumonia, Dr. Merrill explains. When bacterial pneumonia goes untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body and potentially lead to sepsis, a severe immune system reaction that can be deadly. On top of that, a patient may also become dehydrated or malnourished due to the inability to swallow.

Other serious illnesses, such as the flu, can also lead to death in dementia patients if they become severe enough. "People with advanced dementia aren't able to express through language the fact that they're feeling ill so there may be later detection of an illness," Dr. Merrill says. "When an illness is finally detected, it may be more progressed and take over the body to the extent that it wouldn't have if someone didn't have dementia."

Falls can also be a cause of death related to dementia. "People with dementia tend to lose insight about their limitations and may still take risks that they wouldn't in the past, like forgetting that they can't walk without assistance," Dr. Merrill says. "And falls come with a risk of serious injury and death." In fact, falls are the leading cause of unintentional injury deaths in people aged 65 or older, according to the CDC.

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