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Blue @ Work

How to navigate Alzheimer's in the workplace

Foster a culture of openness, education and support.

*This article was last updated on September 7, 2021.

It's time to start thinking about how early-onset Alzheimer's disease affects your employees. While it's the fifth leading cause of death in adults older than 65, the degenerative brain disease is affecting more Americans under age 65 every year.

According to a report from Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) External Link, combined diagnosis rates for early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in adults ages 30 to 64 increased by 200 percent between 2013 and 2017. For the youngest segment of that group, which includes your Generation X and Millennial employees opens in new window, diagnosis rates spiked 373 percent External Link.

The average age for someone living with either form of dementia is now 49 — and it’s affecting their overall health. The BCBSA report notes that people with either condition are living at just 63 percent of optimal health, shaving about 11 healthy years from their life. In addition, more than half of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease filled a prescription for an anti-depressant in the year before receiving a diagnosis.

Officially diagnosing Alzheimer’s can be tricky, as the disease can start in the brain without showing obvious symptoms for as many as 20 years External Link. Not to mention, disease progression is irreversible once it starts. With individuals as young as 30 showing symptoms, and estimated total health care costs expected to reach $1 trillion External Link by 2050, it’s a quickly becoming a significant area of concern.

With Alzheimer’s diagnoses showing no signs of slowing down, and only one potential, effective treatment on the horizon, bringing awareness to Alzheimer’s disease in the workplace External Link is crucial —as is providing support to your employees.

Know the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia

It’s important to understand the difference External Link between an employee who has Alzheimer’s, compared to one who might suffer from dementia. Although Alzheimer’s is a common cause of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a disease and dementia is not.

  • Alzheimer’s disease: A degenerative brain disease that progressively destroys memory and cognitive skills. As the disease advances, symptoms become more severe and cause disorientation, confusion and behavior changes, rendering those living with the disease unable to independently care for themselves.
  • Dementia: A condition caused by damage to brain cells that results in cognitive decline outside of normal aging, affecting the ability to communicate, think, behave and feel. Although Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a disease and dementia is not. 

In June 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently fast-tracked the approval of Aduhelm™ (aducanumab), a new treatment option — and the first since 2003 — for people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Though more clinical trials need to be conducted to assess its safety and efficacy, it shows promise in being able to slow cognitive decline.

For more on this new treatment and Wellmark’s response, download this Pharmacy Trend Alert flyer PDF File.

How you can help if an employee shows signs of Alzheimer’s

Your workplace can play a huge role in supporting your employees when they need it most. By offering various accommodations or resources to employees dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, you can help ease struggles or burdens that may arise.

  1. Provide support when they need it most.

  2. Make your workplace as comfortable and supportive as possible for employees to express their needs, concerns or frustrations. When you create a supporting an open environment External Link, you can accurately accommodate each employee’s unique experiences.

  3. Keep the workplace clutter-free.

  4. According to a study done by the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation External Link, researchers found by reducing visual clutter, participants had improved memory and performance with everyday tasks.

  5. Evaluate employee working hours.

  6. Between varying appointments, treatments and the emotional trauma an Alzheimer’s diagnosis may bring, it’s important to know your employees may have to step away from the office. Having an up-front conversation with an employee about appropriate or flexible hours can help them feel supported and more engaged when in the office.

  7. Consider all-employee training.

  8. Provide information and training to employees about how to talk, support and help a fellow colleague dealing with Alzheimer’s in the workplace. You can provide education about the varying symptoms, how to act in sensitive situations, and accommodations they can easily make to support a coworker.

    If you’re looking for ideas on how to better accommodate employees with Alzheimer’s in the workplace, review this accommodation and compliance training guide External Link from the Job Accommodation Network.

  9. Promote BeWell 24/7SM.

  10. Available to Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield members, BeWell 24/7 can help your employees find a doctor, coordinate appointments, get treatment advice, seek a second opinion and even manage care complex situations — all at no cost to them. Search “BeWell 24/7” on the Wellmark Marketing Toolkit for ready-to-share flyers, information and more.

At the end of the day, your employees are your company's most valuable investments. Their happiness, engagement, work-life balance and health are all critical to how your business moves forward. With any disease or illness, the most important part is offering support and resources when necessary.

Healthy business, healthy employees

With your natural knack for wanting to help, educate and provide the best benefits to your employees, now there is a resource to turn your employees into savvy health care consumers. Companies that offer Wellmark coverage have access to myWellmark®. myWellmark allows your employees to manage their conditions, track claims and costs, compare quality and find top centers for specialty care.

With myWellmark, your confidence can be restored in your employees’ knowledge of their health insurance coverage, leaving you to answer fewer questions, calls and emails about health insurance information.

If they haven’t done so already, encourage your employees to register for myWellmark opens in new window. Questions? Contact your authorized Wellmark account representative or email us at Send Email.