SPAIN has seen a dramatic increase in the number of deaths caused by Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, as a result of its aging population.
According to research by the National Statistics Institute (INE), 13,015 people died from the disease in 2012, up from just 5,382 in 2000 – a 141.8% increase.
It is estimated that more than 600,000 people in Spain are suffering from the disease, according to the Spanish Society of Neurology, but other estimates put the figure as high as 800,000.
But the nature of the disease makes recording exact figures extremely difficult, as most of those affected – around 75% – die from infections.
Scientists at the San Pau Hospital in Madrid are conducting research into how to more accurately assess the extent of the affects of Alzheimer’s on Spain’s elderly population.
“Alzheimer’s causes a general weakening of the patient,” explains Alberto Lleo, head of the Memory Unit at the Neurology of San Pau Hospital.
Rather than killing the patient outright, Alzheimer’s causes the irreversible deterioration of cognitive functions making the sufferer vulnerable to infections and malnutrition.
“We must distinguish between the immediate cause of death, such as pneumonia for example, and the underlying cause, which is the Alzheimer’s,” said Pedro Gil Gregorio, Chief of Geriatrics at the Clinical Hospital of Madrid, and responsible for the Memory Unit.
“Malnutrition is also a key factor, as well as all other diseases that can affect the elderly,” Gregorio added.
“Having Alzheimer’s doesn’t stop you getting cancer, or having a heart attack. So it’s very difficult to establish the true cause of death.”
But the deterioration the disease causes is not total.
“The limbic system, which deals with the emotions, is very strong. This is why, even in an advanced stage, there can be an emotional and affectionate reaction.” concludes Lleo.
“This is very important for families. Even in very advanced cases you can see the patient react when a loved one comes in, their eyes light up. They may not recognise or know them, but they feel it’s someone important. This is why it’s important to keep loving them to the end.”