How Does Alzheimer's Disease Lead to Death?

Medically Reviewed By Nancy Hammond, M.D.
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Alzheimer’s disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States. There are varying ways it can lead to death, one of which is dying brain cells. Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological condition in which brain cells die. It is the leading cause of memory loss, or dementia, in older people.

A person with Alzheimer’s disease may also experience disorientation, hallucinations, and other cognitive concerns.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 5.8 million people in the U.S. had Alzheimer’s disease in 2020. The National Institute on Aging also reports that the condition is the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.

Read on to learn more about how Alzheimer’s disease causes death. 

What is Alzheimer’s disease? 

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Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological condition that results from the death of brain cells and the shrinking of the brain. 

It typically starts with minor symptoms before gradually progressing into more severe effects.

The exact cause is unclear. However, experts believe that it is possibly due to a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. These include:

  • Aging: Alzheimer’s disease commonly affects people ages 65 years and above, though it can occur in younger people as well.
  • Family history: Some sources say that a person may be at higher risk of the condition if their parent or sibling has it. Other research suggests that having a type of the apolipoprotein E gene increases a person’s risk.
  • Heart health: Risk factors for heart disease may also raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. These include a lack of exercise, overweight and obesity, and smoking.

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease?

Dementia is the defining symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. A person with the condition may forget recent experiences and familiar places. They may also ask the same questions repeatedly.

Other early symptoms include: 

  • difficulty concentrating and thinking
  • difficulty completing familiar tasks 
  • misplacing things
  • hallucinations and delusions 
  • mood changes and anxiety
  • confusion and disorientation 
  • difficulty making decisions
  • personality changes

Be sure to contact a doctor if you or someone you know is experiencing any of these symptoms. 

Read about 10 things your doctor wants you to know about Alzheimer’s disease here.

How do doctors treat Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is not currently curable, but it is manageable. If a doctor diagnoses the condition, they will typically administer medications to relieve some of the symptoms. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a number of medications for use as treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. These include:

  • Donepezil: This treats dementia and improves thinking ability.
  • Galantamine: This treats mild-to-moderate dementia.
  • Memantine: This treats moderate-to-severe dementia.
  • Aducanumab: This reduces the buildup of brain proteins and slows the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Rivastigmine: This improves memory and thinking skills.

Prevention

Alzheimer’s disease is not preventable. However, certain lifestyle decisions may reduce your likelihood of developing risk factors. These include:

  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • exercising regularly
  • maintaining a moderate weight 
  • avoiding smoking and alcohol 

What happens to your brain with Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease occurs when the behavior of brain chemicals suddenly changes. Specifically, brain proteins pile up unnaturally and cause other toxic reactions to take place. 

As a result, brain cells (neurons) stop working, lose their connection to each other, and die. The damage begins in the part of the brain responsible for memory. Over time, however, it spreads to other parts, such as the area that controls speech.

In the final stages of the condition, the recurrent loss of neurons causes the brain to shrink.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease may not appear until this damage reaches an advanced stage. 

What are the complications of Alzheimer’s disease?

As toxic reactions continue to occur throughout the brain, multiple brain processes come to a halt. This disrupts a person’s ability to perform various functions, such as swallowing and walking.

This, in turn, may lead to complications such as:

How does Alzheimer’s disease lead to death?

When Alzheimer’s disease progresses to an advanced stage, a severe loss of brain function occurs. When this happens, various complications develop, eventually causing death.

Experts say that Alzheimer’s disease can take a decade or more to progress to the point of death.

Learn more about the differences between Alzheimer’s disease and dementia here.

What is the death rate for Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. According to recent reports:

  • It is one of the top 10 most common causes of death in the U.S.
  • It is the fifth leading cause of death among adults ages 65 years or older.
  • In 2014, more than 93,500 people in the U.S. died from the condition.

Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease

A person with Alzheimer’s disease may need help performing their daily activities, such as cleaning up and getting around. Good caregiving can preserve the physical, social, and emotional well-being of a loved one with the condition.

To be an effective caregiver, you must first have a good understanding of the condition. Online resources and your doctor can help you achieve that.

It is also important to have empathy, patience, and good coping skills. 

Due to the physical, emotional, and financial implications of caregiving, you may find joining a support network helpful. 

Support networks offer various support packages to people living with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers, including:

  • providing emotional comfort
  • sharing experiences
  • sharing tips on getting respite care
  • sharing tips on placement in a care facility 

Care facilities and self-care

Although the majority of people care for their loved ones at home, some may prefer to place them in a facility. A care facility may be especially beneficial if your loved one requires intensive care.

Discuss your options with the family and your doctor to find the way forward.

Also, if you have Alzheimer’s disease and are taking care of yourself, be sure to eat healthy foods. In addition, remember to exercise and visit your doctor regularly.

Summary

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurological condition that results from the death of brain cells and the shrinking of the brain. It usually causes dementia, disorientation, and personality changes. In its advanced stages, it can also cause speech problems, delusions, and other health issues.

It is unclear what causes the condition. However, experts believe that factors such as aging and family history are involved.

Alzheimer’s disease is not currently curable. However, medications such as donepezil and aducanumab can help relieve certain symptoms.

In its later stages, Alzheimer’s disease can cause a severe loss of brain function. This leads to various complications that eventually cause death.

If your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease, be sure to take good care of them. Doing so can go a long way toward preserving their well-being.  

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Medical Reviewer: Nancy Hammond, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Apr 20
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