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U.S. deaths from Alzheimer's growing, data shows

By Susan Heavey

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Deaths and the risk of dying from Alzheimer's disease have risen significantly in the United States during the last decade, according to two reports released on Tuesday.

The trend comes as scientists and drugmakers are increasingly focused on patients with few or no symptoms of the memory-robbing disease after efforts to halt progression in those who already have symptoms failed over the past few years.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed the risk of death from the degenerative brain disease rose 39 percent between 2000 and 2010 even as mortality rates for other conditions such as cancer, heart disease and stroke fell significantly.

Separate findings from the Alzheimer's Association based on CDC data, but looking at actual deaths, found mortality up 68 percent over the same decade.

While the risk of death depends on a patient's age, gender, race and even where they live, it is clear that it has been increasing steadily for a long period of time, the CDC said in its report.

Those 85 and older are far more at risk of dying from Alzheimer's than those age 65 to 84, CDC said. Whites and women are also at higher risk, it added.

"Compared with other selected causes, Alzheimer's disease has been on the rise since the last decade," the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics said, adding that "mortality from Alzheimer's disease has steadily increased during the last 30 years."

"The Alzheimer's epidemic is clearly an urgent issue that needs to be addressed," the Alzheimer's Association, which advocates for patients and helps fund research, said in a statement accompanying its annual report.

Both findings come amid a new push by U.S. health officials to combat the disease as government and industry researchers work to find more targeted therapies that could help patients sooner.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last year released a national action plan to address Alzheimer's following a 2011 law signed by President Barack Obama requiring federal agencies to coordinate their research and accelerate efforts to target the disease. The president also highlighted the issue in his annual address to lawmakers in January.

Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration last month issued guidelines to make it easier to test potential treatments in patients earlier when there may be a greater chance for them to work.

There is currently no cure for the disease, which the CDC said is the fifth leading cause of death for Americans age 65 and older and the sixth leading cause overall.

That is particularly a concern as Americans continue to live longer and the nation faces a wave of older citizens as the so-called baby boomer generation ages.

While it is not immediately clear what is behind the increased mortality, such a shift in aging could be a likely factor. Increased attention could also affect diagnosis rates and those who would have in the past simply been thought of to die from "old age" are found to have the disease.

HIGH COST OF CARE

The healthcare costs are also significant.

Treating those with Alzheimer's disease and other dementia conditions cost about $200 billion in 2012, CDC said, including $140 billion in costs to the government's Medicare and Medicaid health insurance programs. By 2050, the costs could reach $1.1 trillion, it added.

Drugmakers are trying to develop effective treatments for what could be a potentially large market, but so far current pharmaceuticals only treat symptoms and do not keep the disease from worsening.

Many have already shifted from targeting people who already have dementia to potential treatments for early-stage patients where they see more hope for successful intervention.

Scientists are also working to discover new information about the elusive and complex disease that could also help spark new therapies. Last year, international teams of researchers identified a new risk gene linked to inflammation that they said represented a major breakthrough.

Another initiative, highlighted by Obama in his January speech, includes efforts to "map" the human brain to gain better insight.

"Without the development of medical breakthroughs that prevent, slow or stop the disease, by 2050, the number of people with Alzheimer's disease could reach 13.8 million," the Alzheimer's Association said in a statement, adding that other estimates put the figure as high as 16 million.

This year, an estimated 450,000 Americans are expected to die with the disease, it added.

Robert Egge, the group's vice president of public policy, called it a national crisis. He also called upon the National Institutes of Health "to reset its priorities and focus its resources" on the disease and on Congress to fully fund the U.S. action plan.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey, editing by G Crosse)

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