Utah specialist shortages make Alzheimer's numbers a growing problem

Utah specialist shortages make Alzheimer's numbers a growing problem

(Kristin Murphy, KSL, File)



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SALT LAKE CITY — The number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease has reached an all-time high in Utah, peaking at 34,000 patients over 65 years old. This is a 3% increase since 2019’s numbers, according to the 2020 Alzheimer’s Association Disease Facts and Figures report.

By 2025 experts estimate a 23.5% increase of patients in Utah, the association said, projecting 42,000 Alzheimer’s patients over 65 in the state.

Ronnie Daniel, executive director for the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, shared with KSL.com that the rise in the illness occurs from past generations growing older.

"The primary cause of Alzheimer’s disease is age," Daniel said.

At age 65, 1 in 10 people have the disease. At age 85, 1 in 3 people will have the disease. Most will never see a dementia care specialist because of specialist shortages.

Dementia specialist shortages

Eighty-five percent of first-time Alzheimer’s diagnoses come from non-dementia specialists. Most often they are primary care physicians with no dementia diagnosis or care training.

Based on current demographics shared in the release, the number of Utah geriatricians needs to increase by 443% by the time 2050 comes — which would be enough to serve only 10% of projected Utah Alzheimer's patients over 65.

"Primary care physicians, who are the front line of providing care, are telling us the medical profession is not prepared to meet the future demand," Joanne Pike, chief program officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, said in the release.

She said this raises an important alarm for dementia care's future.

The shortage of dementia specialists also weighs on family and friends obliged to take care of Utah’s Alzheimer’s population. The report revealed that 159,000 Utahns voluntarily provided 181 million hours of unpaid care for their loved ones. The value of their time and effort reached $2.4 billion last year, based on estimated economic values.

Cognitive assessments are important to conduct yearly, yet only 16% of adults over 65 are actually doing it. Daniel said it’s because of unclear communication. Patients are waiting for their doctor to bring it up, and doctors are waiting for their patients to say something is wrong.

"One of the things that could really help would be for doctors to just make sure that a cognitive assessment is a natural and normal thing when they do their annual wellness visits," Daniel explained.

Despite there being no cure for Alzheimer's, Daniel told KSL.com many things can help ease the progress of the disease, "particularly, a lot of resources available for caregivers and family members who are helping to support them," said Daniel.

The association has a 24-hour helpline staffed by master's level social workers and clinicians to help caregivers and Alzheimer’s patients, according to Daniel, as well as information about research and the disease on its website.

"It's a tough diagnosis to receive. Many people don't want to even think about the word Alzheimer's disease," Daniel said. "They really are afraid of that."

What Utahns can do

Daniel hopes Utahns will reach out to senators and congressmen representing Utah to encourage their vote for future bills supporting more appropriation towards Alzheimer’s research, which is something the Association advocates for too.

"The only way we're going to find a way to cure this disease is for research to continue to afford," Daniel said.

Sandy Silverstein, media relations manager of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, also said they want people to know they’re not alone.

"As a caregiver, you should set up a care support team," Silverstein told KSL.com. "We want (families) to know that there are programs and services out there to help them."

On April 9, the foundation will host a free educational conference to help support Utahns with the increase in people living with Alzheimer’s at the University of Utah’s Guest House and Conference Center from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The Foundation hopes to inform about Alzheimer’s disease, brain health, and dementia caregiving. The event is open to anyone interested.

"Participants have the opportunity to interact with Alzheimer’s experts, ask questions, network, and obtain a free memory screening," according to a news release. Local exhibitors will also take part in the conference.

Among Alzheimer’s disease experts attending will be George Perry, and professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

He told KSL.com said it's important to remember that those with Alzheimer’s are still the same loved ones they had when they were mentally intact.

"They're still there," said Perry. "And it's important that their care, as they go through the course of the disease, is as holistic as possible."

Merritt Jones

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