The Longest Day (copy)

Over a dozen walkers took to the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge Wednesday, June 21, 2017, in support of Alzheimer's Association "The Longest Day." A recent Alzheimer's Association report showed South Carolina had more deaths related to the disease in 2015 than any other state. Brad Nettles/Staff

South Carolina led the nation in terms of the percent of its population that died of Alzheimer's disease in 2015, a new report shows. 

The annual report by the national Alzheimer's Association found that 2,453 South Carolinians died of Alzheimer's that year — the most recent year rates are available.

While that marked a small fraction of the state's 4.89 million population, it was the highest rate in the nation.

South Carolina ranked 8th in 2014.

About 89,000 people in South Carolina have Alzheimer's Disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association report. Projections estimate that number will swell to 120,000 by 2025. 

The reason death rates are higher in South Carolina may stem partly from its rapidly aging population. About 17 percent of the state's residents are 65 or older, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and 10,000 people turn 65 every day in the United States.

"As we are seeing the silver tsunami crest, more people are getting diagnosed," said Taylor Wilson, director of communications for the state's chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

The problem isn't unique to South Carolina.

Mindi Spencer, an associate professor in the University of South Carolina's Institute for Southern Studies, said she was surprised to hear the results of the Alzheimer's Association report because South Carolina is not the oldest or unhealthiest state in the country.

She said South Carolina has done a better job recently with recording Alzheimer's as a primary cause of death. Some death certificates may not mark Alzheimer's as the cause, but doing so helps researchers understand disease trends. Spencer thinks that this is the most likely the reason that South Carolina stands out this year.

"It’s bad news, but it’s news that we needed to know," she said.

On the bright side, a healthier population and better treatments for diseases such as heart disease and cancer mean that fewer people are dying from those diseases. Because people are living longer, more are contracting Alzheimer's.

Dr. Nicholas Milano, a neurologist with the Medical University of South Carolina, said there is no cure for Alzheimer's. It may take years to progress, but it is always fatal.

"Unfortunately, the disease will eventually win out," he said.

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The disease also strikes certain demographic groups more than others, according to USC's Alzheimer's disease Registry, which Spencer said is the oldest and most comprehensive of its kind in the country. Data from the registry shows 63 percent of people with the disease are women and 28 percent are African-American.

Early detection of the disease will help patients live a better quality of life. For instance, more research opportunities and clinical trials are available to people in its early stages. Milano said much research on potential treatments is in the works, but nothing has yielded a cure.

Advocates for those with the disease say more research funding is needed. The Alzheimer's Association is the third largest Alzheimer's research donor in the world, behind only the U.S. and Chinese governments, Wilson said.

Meanwhile, the disease costs Medicaid and Medicare hundreds of millions of dollars every year, according to the association.

Wilson pointed to the burden of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's as a side effect of its prevalence here.

Caregivers in South Carolina provide hundreds of millions of hours of unpaid care every year, the report showed. That care could be valued at about $4.4 billion.

Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.

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