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What are the Causes of Death in People with Alzheimer's Disease?

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Updated May 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What are the Causes of Death in People with Alzheimer's Disease?
The Alzheimer's Association notes that Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Average life expectancy is four to seven years after diagnosis, although some people may live as much as 20 years or more. What actually causes death in people with Alzheimer's disease?
Answer:

In late stage Alzheimer's disease, people become extremely confused and disoriented. Eventually they lose the ability to communicate, and may not respond at all. They are unable to care for themselves, becoming bedbound and completely dependent on others. Their appetite declines, and eventually they lose the ability to swallow, leading to high risk of aspiration. This explains why more than 90% of the more than 5 million people with dementia in the U.S. are in a nursing home when they die.

Under these difficult conditions, it's not hard to imagine how vulnerable people with late-stage dementia become to succumbing to infections, pressure sores and pneumonia. One study found that half of all people with dementia admitted to a hospital for pneumonia or a hip fracture died within six months of leaving the hospital.

Another study that examined autopsy reports of people with dementia found the main causes of death were pneumonia, cardiovascular diseases, pulmonary embolism, cachexia, and dehydration.

Source:

Javier, Noel S.C., MD, "Palliative Care for the Nursing Home Resident with Dementia", Medicine and Health Rhode Island 93; 12:379-81, December 2010.

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