Alzheimer’s disease (also just referred to as Alzheimer’s) is a degenerative brain disease that currently affects an estimated 5.7 million Americans. The hallmarks of Alzheimer’s include memory loss and declining cognitive abilities, often leading to the devastating inability to remember or recognize loved ones. Ultimately, the progressive decline of cognitive and motor functions can be fatal. In such cases, Alzheimer’s is often attributed as the underlying cause of death.
Alzheimer’s is a disease most often associated with the elderly: roughly 96%—5.5 million—of all people living with the disease are over the age of 65. However, age is not the only variable that matters. Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we can also see how Alzheimer’s deaths differ between genders and races in the United States.
Alzheimer's is more fatal to women than men, though the trends run in parallel.
Between 1999 and 2016, significantly more women than men died from Alzheimer’s. According to the most recent data in 2016, women are about 1.4 times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s than men. While women and men experience significantly different rates of Alzheimer’s deaths, their trends over the last twenty years appear fairly similar. Both rates slowed their increase in the 2000s before sharply increasing starting around 2013.
We do not know the cause of this sudden increase, but it may be due to changes made in 2011 to the protocols around how Alzheimer’s is diagnosed: because Alzheimer’s is only listed as the underlying cause of death in individuals previously diagnosed before death, an increase in diagnoses would likely cause a concurrent increase in deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s. As for why women suffer Alzheimer’s deaths at a higher rate than men, the debate is still ongoing. The difference has been noted for decades, and is possibly a consequence of both physiological and societal/cultural differences.
Racial differences persist for Alzheimer's mortality.
While Alzheimer’s fatality rates significantly increased for all races between 1999 and 2016, the magnitude of the rates are different for each race. In 2016, white Americans had the highest age-adjusted rate, while Asians and Pacific Islanders had the lowest. . Why race plays a significant factor in whether one dies from Alzheimer’s is still the subject of ongoing research, with biases in measurement, genetic differences, non-genetic medical risk factors, and societal factors all cited as potential reasons.
Despite decades of research, we still don’t fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s. In a recent trial, a medication was found to decrease the rate of memory loss significantly. More trials are needed, but if the results hold, it would be the first drug to successfully attack symptoms of Alzheimer's.
Note: Mortality data may not be available for all locations, particularly low-population locations. The CDC does not report small death counts to protect the privacy of individuals.