91 Percent of Older Adults With Dementia Have This in Common, Research Says


As you get older, you tend to lose some of your mental sharpness. But sometimes your forgetfulness or struggle to follow familiar directions could be an indicator of dementia, which is far more serious. Because there is such a blurred line between normal changes to the brain as we age—like finding yourself forgetting where you put your keys or the name of the person you just met—and dementia-related symptoms, it can go undiagnosed. Now, a new study has found that a majority of older adults with dementia have something in common. Read on to find out what 91 percent of older adults with dementia share.

RELATED: This Dementia Sign Can Show Up 16 Years Before Diagnosis, New Study Says.

Around 91 percent of older adults with dementia are undiagnosed.

A new study published on May 18 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease has found that very few older adults with dementia receive a diagnosis. Researchers from the University of Michigan (UM), North Dakota State University, and Ohio University developed and analyzed a sample of more than six million Americans ages 65 or older. According to the study, they found that 91.4 percent of these older adults with cognitive impairment consistent with dementia had not received a formal, medical diagnosis. That means around 9 in 10 older adults with dementia don't know they have it.

Sheria Robinson-Lane, PhD, a study co-author and assistant professor at the UM School of Nursing, said in a statement that the discrepancy "was higher than I was expecting."

Some demographics are more at risk of having undiagnosed dementia.

The study further broke down the commonalities among those with cognitive impairment who are undiagnosed with dementia, finding that some demographics were more likely to not receive a diagnosis.

According to the findings, 93.3 percent of people who identified as non-Hispanic Black with signs of dementia had no diagnosis. And 99.7 percent of men with signs of dementia were undiagnosed compared to 90.2 percent of women. In terms of education among those with symptoms consistent with dementia, 93.5 percent of non-high school graduates compared to 90.9 percent who had at least a high school education had gone undiagnosed.

"There is a large disparity in dementia-related treatment and diagnosis among Black older adults, who are often diagnosed much later in the disease trajectory compared to other racial and ethnic groups," Robinson-Lane confirmed.

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Dementia screenings aren't routine for older adults.

Robinson-Lane said one concerning root of undiagnosed dementia is that cognitive assessments aren't routine during older adults' annual checkups. And even if doctors do screen for dementia, some don't actually tell patients of their diagnosis. A 2015 study led by researchers from the Alzheimer's Association found that 45 percent of people who were treated for Alzheimer's were never told by their doctor that they had the disease, as reported by Time magazine.

The researchers behind the 2021 study found that when proxy reporters—generally family members of these older adults—responded to the survey, they saw the prevalence of undiagnosed cases drop from 91 percent to around 75 percent. While still significant, Robinson-Lane said, that indicates someone else in an older person's life may know they have dementia while the patient themselves does not.

Dementia can put you at a higher risk for hospitalization and death following an infection.

Robinson-Lane said the COVID pandemic adds a level of significance to the need for routine cognitive assessments in older adults, since people with dementia have a higher risk for hospitalization and death following infection. A study published in February in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association found that the overall risk of hospitalization for adults with COVID and dementia was almost 60 percent, compared to 25 percent for the general population of COVID patients. And the risk of COVID death for dementia patients was 21 percent compared to the general risk of a little more than 5 percent.

"Now more than ever, these routine screenings and assessments are really critical," Robinson-Lane said. "I think it's particularly important to have some baseline information available to providers of patients over 65."

RELATED: If You Notice This When Talking, It Could Be an Early Dementia Sign, Study Says.