One in six Utahns who are age 60 and older report worsening memory loss, according to a first-of-its-kind survey that has dementia experts forecasting a boom in Alzheimer's disease.
Seventeen percent of 1,000 elderly Utahns polled by the state Department of Health in 2011 said they had experienced worsening or more frequent bouts of confusion or memory loss in the previous 12 months. The finding, released Monday, is higher than the national rate of 13 percent reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Of Utahns reporting cognitive impairment, fewer than 7 percent said it interfered with their ability to do household chores or engage in social activities.
But nearly a third lived alone, and the vast majority had yet to discuss their memory problems with a doctor signaling an underreported public health threat for which the state is "not prepared," said Norman Foster, director of the University of Utah's Center for Alzheimer's Care, Imaging and Research (CACIR).
Age-related disease that hinders memory, thinking and behavior is predicted to grow with the "silver tsunami," or the aging baby boomer generation, but it is underdiagnosed due to the social stigma and a shortage of medical experts, Foster said.
There are many forms of dementia, but the one that gets the most attention is Alzheimer's disease.
It's the sixth leading cause of death in Utahns age 60 and older. Alzheimer's rates are growing faster here than anywhere else in the country. And research unveiled in July by the Alzheimer's Association suggests self-reported memory slips like those spotlighted in the Utah survey may be early signs of the disease.
Early diagnosis is important, Foster said. "There are treatments for Alzheimer's that are more effective early on. Things can be done to improve quality of life and reduce complications."
But too often, he said, "We see patients years after symptoms have begun."
People with memory concerns have difficulty knowing when to seek medical advice, said Foster, who is working with a team of scientists at the U. on an iPad app to help patients make that call. They don't want to bother their doctor with something trivial, he said, and they're loathe to bring it up with friends, family and colleagues.
But that's exactly what public health officials, who traditionally have focused more on injuries, infectious diseases and acute health problems, now recommend.
Before 2011, "cognitive decline" wasn't something the health department tracked in its Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey, said Kathryn Marti, director of the state health department's Office of Public Health Assessment.
The data collection was pushed by the CDC and the Alzheimer's Association as part of a joint "Healthy Brain Initiative."
Just having the data "is a huge step forward," said Foster, who hopes it spurs policymakers to find solutions to a documented shortage of dementia experts in Utah.
A working group under Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell brainstormed a fix-it plan that includes training nurses and social workers on early signs of dementia. But Foster said the state "hasn't acted on it."
Telemedicine, or having Salt Lake County experts remotely treat patients in rural Utah, also holds promise, he said. The U. received a grant to expand its telehealth offerings, but it will take legislation to remove regulatory obstacles, Foster said.