More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, a 10 percent increase since the last Alzheimer's Association estimate five years ago -- and a count that supports the long-forecast dementia epidemic as the population grays.
Age is the biggest risk factor, and the report to be released Tuesday shows the nation is on track for skyrocketing Alzheimer's once the baby boomers start turning 65 in 2011. Already, one in eight people 65 and older have the mind-destroying illness, and nearly one in two people over 85.
Unless scientists discover a way to delay Alzheimer's brain attack, some 7.7 million people are expected to have the disease by 2030, the report says. By 2050, that toll could reach 16 million.
Why? Ironically, in fighting heart disease, cancer and other diseases, "we're keeping people alive so they can live long enough to get Alzheimer's disease," explains association vice president Steve McConnell.
Indeed, government figures released last year that show small drops in deaths from most of the nation's leading killers between 2000 and 2004 -- even as deaths attributed to Alzheimer's disease increased 33 percent.
Yet the report also contains a startling finding: Between 200,000 and half a million people under age 65 have either early onset Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. Researchers have been hard-pressed to estimate of the number of young sufferers.
"I think this has been drastically underreported," said Dr. Bill Thies, the Alzheimer's Association's medical director.
He cites as an example a 55-year-old having problems at work, such as behavior changes or missing deadlines, that may be early signs of brain impairment but that go unrecognized until they progress to full-scale memory problems.