Editor’s Note: This is the first of a five part series looking at the effects of Alzheimer’s in Arizona.
PHOENIX — It is the fourth leading cause of death in Arizona and the Department of Health Services predicts the number of people who will die from it will more than double by the year 2025. It is Alzheimer’s.
“Currently, one in nine people over the age of 65 in Arizona have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis,” said James Fitzpatrick with the Alzheimer’s Association’s Southwest Chapter.
He added that’s 120,000 Arizonans are living with the degenerative disease, “and it’s expected to grow to over 200,000 in the next 10 years.”
Three years ago, the leading edge of the post World War II Baby boomer generation hit 65. A generation that came about starting in 1946 when returning soldiers married their sweethearts and started building families. That image does not elude Fitzpatrick the director of Alzheimer’s programs and advocacy in Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Nevada.
“Right now, it’s the calm before the storm,” he said.
Fitzpatrick warned the number of Alzheimer’s patients is not going to let up.
“Look ahead 10 years,” he said. “After those WWII couples started having 4.5 kids.”
By 2025, those babies will boost the number of Arizonans diagnosed with the disease by 67 percent.
Dr. Marwan Sabbagh, director of Barrow Neurological Institute’s Memory and Alzheimer’s division, does not shy away from calling it an epidemic.
“It is an epidemic,” Sabbagh said, adding that not only because of the Baby Boomer swell, “but because the life expectancy in 1900 was 47… in 2100 it’s supposed to be 89.”
Sabbagh credits advancements in science, medical care, and research for curbing heart attacks, strokes, infectious diseases. In every other state, these illnesses remain the leading killers, followed by diabetes, lung disease and a number of others.
But, in Arizona, “It’s the fourth leading cause of death and we are not talking about it,” Fitzpatrick said.
Among the top 10 medical killers in the U.S., Alzheimer’s is the only chronic disease that deaths are on the incline, while every other chronic disease is on the decline.
An Alzheimer’s diagnosis is bleak, admits Fitzpatrick.
“It’s not a glamorous disease,” he said. “Right now, there is no cure for the patient.”
That may explain why those Arizonan’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s represent only a fraction of our citizens who suffer in silence or ignorance.
For each patient in Arizona who receives an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, research is showing there is likely another Arizonan remains undiagnosed.
“Alzheimer’s is a tough sell,” said Fitzpatrick, who remembered his own family history. “We did not talk about it when my grandmother had dementia.”
There is an unspoken guilt in older generations that Fitzpatrick believes keeps loved-ones from seeking a diagnosis.
Bianca Raymond helps educate families on dementia for Hospice of the Valley. She said it’s not uncommon for a person to go undiagnosed because their family is at odds at choosing to stay in the dark about mom or dad.
For instance, “When there are a number of siblings involved, where some are in town and some are out of town, it can get pretty intense,” she said. “Because some people may not be ready to acknowledge the problem, so they discount the symptoms.”
On the patient’s part, they may be reluctant to give up the car keys and lose their independence.
Another reason Fitzpatrick added. “There’s this belief that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can only be confirmed during an autopsy of the brain. Not true. With medical technology there are imaging and scans that can detect the disease.”
And, that is the other problem. Many rural communities in Arizona don’t have the technology or the neurologists available to do the tests.
If Alzheimer’s does not kill the patient first, it is likely to kill the caregiver suffering from stress and fatigue.
“Dementia is a marathon, not a sprint” advised Nicole Cruthers, another educator with Hospice of the Valley. “From the day of diagnosis, the patient can go from maybe six months to 12 years.”
It’s important for the patient and the caregiver to pace themselves.
“The more they know, the better they will be able to handle things in the future,” Cruthers said.
Wages will be lost by both the patient and the caretaker.
“Somebody with Alzheimer’s needs 24 hour care every day, every second,” Fitzpatrick reminded.
At a minimum, he added, hiring a healthcare assistant costs about $20 an hour. If that’s 24-hours a day it adds up to about $175,000 annually. Many families forego hiring help and try to care for the dementia patient themselves.
“In Arizona, we’re looking at just over $4 billion lost because people have to quit their jobs.”
It’s a number that jumps to $250 billion nationally.
Last September, the Governor’s Office on Aging released the findings for a statewide plan recommended by the Arizona Alzheimer’s Task Force. The Task Force is comprised of the state’s top minds researching and caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and other related dementias.
Tuesday, we’ll take a look at what our state is doing better than any other. We’ll also meet a Valley couple who took the brave step of getting diagnosed and the realities they now face.
If you suspect you or a loved-one may have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, contact any of the following agencies for help here in Arizona: