A person does not die directly from Alzheimer's disease; but instead, from complications caused by Alzheimer's disease.
Over time, and as Alzheimer's progresses, the body's immune system weakens, increasing susceptibility to infection and other causes of death related to the elderly.
Typical complications from Alzheimer's and related dementia are: heart attacks, strokes, kidney failure, and lung infections due to aspiration of food. Multi-organ failure is often the cause of death in these patients.
By Bob DeMarco
Alzheimer's Reading Room
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Some people might think or believe that Alzheimer's causes brain death. In other words, it causes the complete brain to stop functioning. This is not true.
- some persons have trouble swallowing,
- others lose the ability to walk,
- some can no longer go to the bathroom,
- patients become much more vulnerable to infections,
- and patients often lose the ability to communicate which complicates all the issues above health issues.
Here are some important words from people I respect.
"Many family members are not aware that no longer eating and drinking is part of the dying process, and it is normal," says Dr. Post.
Dr. Stephen Post,
"A lot of what we think about death and dying is based on the cancer model. Alzheimer's is a complicated and difficult disease.
Late-stage AD is characterized by the inability to communicate by speech or recognize family members, the inability to move about without assistance, incontinence, loss of appetite, and loss of the ability to swallow, with death usually resulting from aspiration pneumonia, infection, or coronary arrest.
On the average, the advanced stage of Alzheimer's lasts 1.5 to 2 years, though 20-30% of patients will "linger" 4, 5, 6, or even as long as 10 years, he says."
Dr. Jason Karlawish,
"The average clinicians are not as good at this as they would be for cancer. Because there is a lack of clear understanding of this stage of Alzheimer's disease.
Dying for the Alzheimer's patient is marked by little if any verbal output, complete dependency in all aspects of daily living, and the complications of brain failure, which include episodes of aspiration, urinary tract infections, fevers, skin breakdowns, and more than 10% loss of body weight.
This is the typical profile of a patient who I would expect could die within a year."
How to Get Answers To Your Questions About Alzheimer's and Dementia Care
Dr. Darby Morhardt,
"Our modern culture tends to treat dying as unnatural.
Our technology allows us to forestall death, yet cannot prevent it. Family members need to be informed, with great compassion, sensitivity, and patience, about the dying process and how natural and inevitable it truly is. The body is shutting down. The natural process of dying means that the body no longer wants or needs food or fluids. This is often viewed as unnatural by caregivers, and even some healthcare professionals.
We need to explore our own feelings and attitudes toward death and dying before we can help families through this transitional process, this time of loss and change."
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Stephen G. Post, PhD is an international speaker, best selling author and the Director for the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University
Dr. Jason Karlawish is a Professor of Medicine, Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Darby J Morhardt is a Research Associate Professor in Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center (CNADC) at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.