One disease killed 2,453 people in Wisconsin in 2018, and projections are that number could increase in the coming years. It's Alzheimer's — a type of dementia that mainly affects the elderly through altered thinking, memory and behavior.
To meet future care needs, the Alzheimer's Association says changes are needed in the medical community.
The association's newly-released annual report shows the disease is expected to increase across the U.S., especially in states with a higher percentage of older people like Florida and Arizona.
The number of people in Wisconsin age 65 and older living with Alzheimer's is currently about 120,000. The number is expected to rise 8%, to 130,000, by 2025. The Association's nationwide survey of primary care physicians finds 50% say the medical profession is not prepared to meet the growing demand for help.
Association Chief Program Officer Joanne Pike says there are things that can be done to assist the doctors, like preparing patients for their annual wellness visits.
"As individuals come in for their annual check-up, the doctors could be asking questions about someone's cognition — whether they have questions or concerns. On the other side of that, we also hope that individuals who could be coming to the annual wellness visit bring those concerns or questions up with their primary care doctor as well," Pike told WUWM.
Pike says the Alzheimer's Association is trying to help primary care physicians connect with geriatricians —doctors who focus on older adults. But Pike says Wisconsin currently only has 84 of those specialists and will need about three times that number by the year 2050. She says it can be done.
"We found that there are ways to entice physicians to enter a specialist field in other areas. For instance, can we provide loan forgiveness programs to bring more physicians into this? Can we make investments within medical schools to bring more attention to this?” Pike said.
Dr. Piero Antuono is a neurology professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin who has long studied dementia. He says primary care physicians do need more information about aging issues, and so do doctors in training.
"That is, in residency programs, which are still very much focused in the hospital and technology-based, and less psycho-socially based, and less community-based," Antuono said.
Even so, Antuono says it can take a longer period with a patient to properly diagnose dementia, and primary care doctors don't always have the time. So, he supports adding more geriatricians, especially in northern Wisconsin, which has an older population. But Antuono says recruitment into geriatrics can be difficult.
"Because it's not as glamorous as other parts or specialties of medicine to the up and coming medical trainee," he said, adding that other specialties may pay more.
Still, he says society would see great benefits if it pays more attention to preventing or treating dementia, such as helping more older people remain independent in their homes. Antuono says that could help family caregivers, too.
"We frequently say that we start with one patient with dementia, and we end up having two patients. The other one being the caregiver who goes through issues of financial concern, depression. Their own health issues are not addressed because they are so devoted to the care of the person with dementia," Antuono said.
The Alzheimer's Association is also calling nationally for more research and clinical trials for potential treatments for dementia. The association says it's too early to say how the coronavirus outbreak will affect their projections about the elderly.
Support for Innovation reporting is provided by Dr. Lawrence and Mrs. Hannah Goodman.
Do you have a question about innovation in Wisconsin that you'd like WUWM's Chuck Quirmbach to explore? Submit it below.