Posts Tagged ‘alcoholism’

Frequency of Dementia Varies By Age, Diagnosis, Placement

JULY 15, 1996 VOLUME 4, NUMBER 3

The common usage of “dementia” usually refers to loss of intellectual functioning or diminished mental capacity. Frequently, the term is used to describe any of a wide variety of illnesses or conditions, without distinguishing among the possible causes.

In a similar way, “Alzheimer’s” is commonly used to describe almost all demented individuals, regardless of the actual reason for the diminution of capacity. It is commonly understood that Alzheimer’s Disease is a diagnosis of exclusion; other than autopsy, it is usually impossible to definitively diagnosis Alzheimer’s, and the diagnosis is reached by excluding all other possible diseases.

For many purposes, the difference between a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and, for example, vascular dementia is unimportant. Most dementias are irreversible, and there is little evidence to suggest that the progress of many dementing illnesses can be slowed. Still, it is both important and interesting to know what different illnesses might cause dementia, and the relative frequency of each.

In their 1992 book “Dementia: A Clinical Approach,” medical researchers Jeffrey L. Cummings and D. Frank Benson survey the existing literature about dementia. Among demented patients, the frequency of each cause varies according to the researcher. Cummings and Benson caution that the estimates of Alzheimer’s disease, in particular, are almost certainly overstated, but the research suggests the following frequencies:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease–25-50%
  • Vascular (multi-infarct) Dementia–10-25%
  • Depression and other psychiatric disorders–10-20%
  • Alcoholic Dementia–2-12%

Other causes, each accounting for between one or two percent and ten percent of all dementias, include metabolic conditions, infections, toxic conditions, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases and other, less frequent causes.

Clearly, Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common dementing condition, but other causes collectively account for more dementia. The very fact that Alzheimer’s is a diagnosis of exclusion operates to inflate its reported frequency, since unidentified dementias will usually be lumped into that category.

Cummings and Benson also report several studies about the frequency of dementia in various groups. Among those 65 or over, approximately 6% can be expected to suffer from severe dementia, and another 10% to 15% evidence mild to moderate impairment.

The frequency of dementia, not surprisingly, increases with age. The percentage of demented individuals can be expected to double for each five-year increment in age, so that about 20% of those over age 75 will show severe symptoms of dementia.

Dementia should be expected to appear more frequently in more restrictive medical facilities, and that expectation is borne out by the research. About 54% of state hospital patients demonstrate severe dementia, while 30% of nursing home residents and 15% of retirement community residents are severely demented. Mild dementia (or worse) can be expected in 94% of state hospital patients, 87% of nursing home residents and 80% of retirement community residents.

What do these figures mean for the treatment or care of demented patients? The high frequency of dementia other than Alzheimer’s Disease suggests the importance of differential diagnosis of dementing illnesses. While most dementia is irreversible, some (such as metabolic conditions and infection) may be treated, and the progress of others (notably vascular dementia) may be slowed by drug therapy and/or diet. And diagnosis and treatment regimens become more important with age and type of treatment facility.

More AZ White House Conference on Aging


As mentioned in last week’s Elder Law Issues, the Arizona White House Conference on Aging held in Phoenix a week ago dealt with the issues facing the full White House Conference on Aging when it meets in May. Arizona’s delegation dealt with several issues expected to dominate the national aging agenda.

Health Care and Mental Health

In 1993, expenditures for health care totaled about $903 billion in the United States. Estimates indicate that the total cost of health care may exceed $1.7 trillion by the year 2000. While the overall cost of living increases at less than 5% per year, health care costs increase more than 10% each year.

Elderly citizens are more closely affected by medical problems than the general population. Those over 65 have an average of eight medical visits per year, as opposed to the five visits made by the rest of the population. The elderly are hospitalized more than three times as often as younger patients, stay half again as long in the hospital, and use twice as many prescription drugs. The disparity is widening; elderly patients are expected to increase their contacts with physicians by 22% (from 259 million contacts to 296 million) by the turn of the century.

The federal Medicare program provides medical care to most Americans over age 65 (about 5% of the elderly are not covered by Medicare). In 1995, Medicare recipients pay $46.10 per month(an increase of over 10%) in insurance premiums to secure coverage for most medical care. Costs not covered by Medicare include eye and dental care, most prescription medications, most nursing home care and most mental health care.

In addition to Medicare Part B premiums, many elderly patients pay substantial deductibles and co-payments for their medical coverage. Others (in increasing numbers) rely on managed care (HMO) programs to reduce or eliminate co-payments.

Mental health services are particularly limited by Medicare. While Arizona has one of the highest suicide rates for over-65 patients in the nation, depression and alcoholism (the leading precursors to suicide and other behavioral health problems) are often undetected and untreated. Reimbursement rates and coverages are not conducive to appropriate and prompt treatment.

Elderly patients in rural areas face particular problems with health care. In addition to the other health issues, rural Arizonans have particular difficulties with transportation. In addition, physicians in rural areas are much more likely to refuse to accept Medicare assignment for their services.

[Next issue: “Special” Elderly Populations]

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