At least 15,000 more Americans have died in recent months from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia than otherwise would have, health officials believe, pointing to how the coronavirus pandemic has exacted a higher fatality toll than official numbers have shown.
As Covid-19 devastated older Americans this spring, often by racing through nursing homes, the deadly outbreaks compounded the devastation of Alzheimer’s and other forms of degenerative brain disorders that are common among elderly residents in long-term care facilities.
Roughly 100,000 people died from Alzheimer’s and dementia from February through May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. Although not all the extra deaths were directly caused by the coronavirus, that fatality rate is 18% higher than average for those disorders in recent years.
The death toll began to climb sharply in mid-March, and by mid-April about 250 extra people with some form of dementia were dying each day, according to CDC estimates.
Some of the deaths were likely caused by Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, but weren’t counted as such on death certificates, according to the CDC. Health experts believe lack of available testing, especially early in the pandemic, contributed to undercounting deaths attributed to Covid-19.
But some of the additional deaths this year likely represent collateral damage, according to Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality-statistics branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. People with advanced Alzheimer’s and dementia are often in fragile health, dependent on steady routines and close care from family members and other caregivers but vulnerable to disruption.
“It’s one fall, and it sets everything off. It’s one day of no fluids and they become dehydrated and it sets off a chain of events,” said Nicole Fowler, associate director at Indiana University’s Center for Aging Research. “It’s amazing how little it actually takes to upset their environment.”