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Posted July 30, 2008

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Elderly Care: Expected Lifespan After Alzheimer's Diagnosis

Q. My step-father was diagnosed 2 1/2 years ago with Alzheimer’s disease. He will be 84 in September. He has gone downhill rapidly in the past six months, and I placed him in an assisted living facility two weeks ago. Since then, he has completely lost all memory of the present and only talks about family from the past. He remembers who I am but has lost all memory of his wife of 45 years.  

What is the expected life span for someone of his age and condition? All his vitals are very good. He limps now and has recurring prostate cancer which they are not going to treat again due to his age and the Alzheimer’s.

Duddy F., Morganton, North Carolina.

A. For an 84-year-old male in the United States with no specific health problems, the average life expectancy is about 5 1/2 years. There is some variation based on race.  Typically, prostate cancer and Alzheimer's dementia progress slowly, but both of these diseases are likely to decrease your step-father's overall life expectancy from the norm. It is often difficult, however, to know by how much. 

The rapid decline in cognitive function may be a reflection of your step-father's current change in living situation. As he grows accustomed to his new surroundings, his "decline" might level off.

With his age and current conditions as you list them, I would anticipate at least 2-3 years more of life left, but there are some people who decline faster than expected and others who surprise us and stay around for quite a while longer.

This answer is provided by Dr. Vivian Argento, a trained geriatrician and member of the geriatric medical team at Bridgeport Hospital in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Dr. Argento is an expert in memory and medical problems affecting the elderly and serves as a clinical instructor at the Yale School of Medicine at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She’s also a consultant both in and out of hospitals and cares for patients in various locations, including nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and in their homes via a house calls program. Dr. Argento can be reached at pvarge@bpthosp.org.

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