New research raises concerns about access to guns for people with dementia, and caregivers search for expert guidance on how to address gun safety as neurodegenerative diseases progress
Gun ownership in the United States is soaring. According to the Brookings Institute, almost 3 million more firearms were sold this spring over comparable periods in the past, resurfacing the national conversation about gun safety. Research released today affirms that dementia and guns do not mix.
Adults 65 and older are more likely to own guns than any other age group. Past studies have found that that more than three quarters of people in this age group own a gun, and 37 percent live in a home with a gun, putting them at greater risk of self-harm or death and of harming or killing others.
Researchers say this risk is compounded by a disease like dementia, which people over 65 may have as much as a one-in-five chance of developing.
“Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia can cause changes in thinking and memory that could make someone unsafe to handle a gun — even if that person has a lifetime of experience,” Emmy Betz, an associate professor of emergency medicine said at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in a news release.
“Figuring out what to do about firearms can be stressful for family members and other dementia caregivers,” Betz continued.
In the new study published in JAMA Network Open, the researchers said they examined a national survey of adults living in houses with firearms and focused on the results of 124 caregivers for patients with dementia. Key findings include:
- Suicide is the most common form of firearm injury for this population, and 71 percent of caregivers thought it was most likely that a person with dementia would accidentally harm him or herself or someone else.
- Among caregivers, 41 percent lived with the person with dementia. Nearly one-third of these caregivers said the person with dementia has access to firearms in the home.
- Caregivers reported that many people with dementia have not made plans about what to do with firearms if they become unfit to handle them.
- A majority of participants said they look to healthcare professionals for help in discussing firearm safety in the context of dementia. Only 5 percent had ever had a healthcare professional talk with them about the topic.
“Our study shows that few caregivers, including spouses and family members, have received professional counseling about how to address gun safety,” Betz said.
Increases in gun ownership have led to increased debate among doctors and scientists over how to best handle the inherently unsafe mix.
A 2018 Kaiser Health News investigation with PBS NewsHour found more than 100 cases across the U.S. since 2012 in which people with dementia used guns to kill themselves or others. The shooters often acted during bouts of confusion, paranoia, delusion or aggression — common symptoms of dementia. Tragically they shot spouses, children and caregivers.
Another 2018 study found that higher rates of dementia risk and higher rates of gun owners are converging in the baby boomer population, putting people at a greater risk of killing themselves or others.
At the CU School of Medicine, Professor Betz leads the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative, which uses collaboration and creative approaches to help prevent firearm injuries and deaths.
“As healthcare providers, family members and friends, we can help older adults think about what they would want to happen with their firearms, if they become unsafe to use them,” Betz said. “This approach promotes respect for independence and preferences while also ensuring safety.”