(FOX 9) - For the first time, researchers have been able to estimate the level of Alzheimer's disease in every county across the United States. The research was released this week at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference.
The research reveals that the highest percentages of those 65 and older with Alzheimer's dementia live in the east and southeastern United States. The author of the study, Kumar B. Rajan, Ph.D., of Rush Medical College in Chicago and his colleagues say a combination of demographic characteristics may explain the higher prevalence in these areas. Many of those counties contain higher percentages of older residents and higher percentages of Black and Hispanic residents. Separate research from the Alzheimer’s Association shows older Blacks are nearly twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older Whites. Older Hispanics are one and a half times more likely than older Whites to have Alzheimer’s.
With those demographics in mind, one could expect that the highest percentages of Alzheimer’s in Minnesota would be concentrated in the Twin Cities metro. But the data shows the highest percentages are in western and southwestern Minnesota.
Lincoln County along the South Dakota border came in with the highest estimate at 13.2% of its population of 65 and older. Just to the south, Pipestone County came in with 13%. Hennepin and Ramsey Counties each had 11% of its population 65 and older estimated to have Alzheimer's.
Rajan and his team from Rush Medical College used cognitive data from the Chicago Health and Aging Project and population estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics to estimate the prevalence of Alzheimer’s 65 and older in all U.S. counties.
"It really shows, I think, where our aging and older populations are in Minnesota," said Sue Parriott, CEO of the Alzheimer's Association Minnesota & North Dakota Chapter. "We thought the incidence of Alzheimer's disease might be higher in Hennepin County in the metro areas, especially because of the makeup of our counties and the diverse populations. But what it's really showing is that the greatest number of Alzheimer's disease and that prevalence is in southern Minnesota, which to me says that's where the older people are living."
The Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures report from the Alzheimer's Association shows Minnesota has 99,000 people with Alzheimer's related dementia as of 2019. That number is expected to balloon by 21% to 124,000 by 2025.
"These new estimates add more granular data to our understanding of Alzheimer’s prevalence across the country," Rajan said in a statement to the Alzheimer’s Association. "This information, in addition to raising awareness of the Alzheimer’s crisis in specific communities, may help public health programs better allocate funding, staffing and other resources for caring for people with Alzheimer’s and all other dementia."
In Minnesota, Parriott says the new data will likely lead to direct discussions with the state legislature during the next legislative session and the Minnesota Department of Health to see if they can target greater Minnesota with more resources.
"What kind of education and awareness do we need to do and especially education to those family care physicians?" Parriott openly asked in an interview with FOX 9. "There aren't a lot of neurologists down in that area because it is rural. So how do we educate the rest of the clinic clinicians and the people in the hospital systems to help those that are there long term?"
The new county-by-county estimates reinforce the urgency in greater Minnesota for more neurologists and for early intervention and diagnosis, especially as a new class of drugs are emerging that show they can slow the progress of the disease. The FDA recently gave full approval to the drug Leqembi by Japanese pharmaceutical company Eisai and its American partner Biogen. The drug is a monoclonal antibody that targets the amyloid cells in the brain and has been shown in clinical trials to modestly slow the progression of the plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s. Additionally, this week Eli Lilly announced phase three trial results of its monoclonal antibody called Donanemab that also slows the progression of amyloid plaques.
"Right now, being able to be diagnosed and diagnosed early is so important so that you have access to the treatments that are available," said Parriott who is pleading with people to talk to their doctors about Alzheimer’s. "I think people are also going to need to start reaching out to their county nurses and we'll have to do a lot of education there as well."
In addition, encouraging patients to connect with their family doctors, the Alzheimer's Association also wants families to know it has a 24-7 helpline for all questions about the disease. It’s 800-272-3900.
"There are treatments available and this is just the beginning," said Parriot. "But you have to be diagnosed first."