Few laws to address growing issue of elderly gun owners with dementia

November 26, 2018, American Osteopathic Association

Red flag laws allowing for the removal of firearms from people with mental illness need to be widely extended to patients suffering from dementia, according to an article in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

The authors noted that the current lack of public policy could lead to an increase in suicide and accidental shootings among baby boomers and older adults, who have high rates of gun ownership and increasing risk for age-related . While can alert local authorities if a patient should no longer drive a motor vehicle, no such process exists for firearm owners with cognitive impairment.

"Nothing about this is easy. People's identities are formed in large part by the ways and degree to which they can feel self-sufficient. That doesn't end with the onset of dementia," says author Katherine Galluzzi, DO, chair of the department of geriatrics at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. "However, as physicians and , we need to be able to do the hard thing in the interest of public safety."

A widespread problem

Researchers report that have the highest rates of gun ownership, with 27 percent of people 65 and older owning one or more firearms, and 37 percent living in a home with a firearm present. One study of patients with dementia or related mental health issues revealed 18 percent lived in a home with one or more firearms. Of that group, 37 percent had delusions and 17 percent had documented hallucinations.

Another survey found 60 percent of households of individuals with a diagnosis of dementia had one or more firearms. According to the study, the presence of guns did not vary by the degree of dementia, with severely impaired patients as likely to have firearms in their homes as those with mild cognitive impairment.

Two cases illustrate the potential for tragedy. An 80-year-old-man living alone with Alzheimer's received regular care from a health aid, who he shot and killed during a period of heightened confusion. In another case, a 72-year-old male patient with cancer rejected treatment options and ended his life with a gunshot to the head.

"Red flag laws" that emerged in several states over the last year offer a potential solution. Such laws allow families and law enforcement to petition a judge for temporary removal of firearms from someone deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. Similar policies could assist physicians and families of patients with dementia, Dr. Galluzzi noted.

An opportunity to intervene

Aside from , the authors say physicians need to get comfortable talking with patients and their families about guns in the home.

The article cites a prior survey comprising a set of questions called the "5 Ls", which can help frame conversations with members:

1. Is there a Loaded gun in the home?
2. Is there a Locked gun in the home?
3. Are there Little children in the home?
4. Has anyone been feeling Low in the home?
5. Is there a Learned operator (someone with prior safety training) in the home?

In addition, Dr. Galluzzi encourages and their families to make a plan for transferring ownership of the gun before dementia sets in.

"Whether it's a question of taking away a person's car or gun, these difficult discussions don't get easier as the patient's mental state deteriorates," says Dr. Galluzzi "It's critical for families to talk about this early and decide on power of attorney so someone can act in the best interest of the patient when they are no longer able to do it for themselves."

Explore further: Researchers say issues of dementia and gun ownership need more discussion

Related Stories

Researchers say issues of dementia and gun ownership need more discussion

May 7, 2018
As the number of adults with Alzheimer's disease and dementia steadily increases, questions around their access to firearms remain largely unaddressed, according to a study by researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz ...

Dementia and guns: When should doctors broach the topic?

October 19, 2018
Some patients refuse to answer. Many doctors don't ask. As the number of Americans with dementia rises, health professionals are grappling with when and how to pose the question: "Do you have guns at home?"

2018 California Safety and Wellbeing Survey details firearm ownership in the state

November 12, 2018
Fourteen percent of California adults, or roughly 4.2 million individuals, personally own firearms. While the majority (54 percent) of owners have just one or two firearms, 10 percent own 10 or more firearms, which combined ...

One in three US veteran firearm owners keeps a gun loaded and unlocked

August 27, 2018
One third of United States Armed Forces Veterans store at least one firearm loaded with ammunition and unlocked, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that reports on the first ...

Study first to report sexual behavior norms for US adults with dementia living at home

September 12, 2018
The majority of partnered, home-dwelling people in the U.S. with dementia are sexually active, according to a University of Chicago Medicine study out this week in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. In addition, ...

National survey says many, not all, open to doctors talking about guns

July 25, 2016
In perhaps the first national survey of its kind, two-thirds of people sampled said it is at least sometimes appropriate for health care providers to talk to patients about firearms. The remainder said it is never appropriate.

Recommended for you

Researchers classify Alzheimer's patients in six subgroups

December 5, 2018
Researchers studying Alzheimer's disease have created an approach to classify patients with Alzheimer's disease, a finding that may open the door for personalized treatments.

Neuroscientists pinpoint genes tied to dementia

December 3, 2018
A UCLA-led research team has identified genetic processes involved in the neurodegeneration that occurs in dementia—an important step on the path toward developing therapies that could slow or halt the course of the disease. ...

Detecting signs of neurodegeneration earlier and more accurately

November 30, 2018
Signs of neurodegenerative diseases, appearing years before the emergence of clinical manifestations, can be detected during the examination of medical samples by means of fluorescence microscopy by using new sensitive and ...

Never-before-seen DNA recombination in the brain linked to Alzheimer's disease

November 21, 2018
Scientists from Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute (SBP) have identified gene recombination in neurons that produces thousands of new gene variants within Alzheimer's disease brains. The study, published today ...

New information on the pathological mechanisms of Alzheimer's disease

November 21, 2018
Researchers at the University of Helsinki have discovered a mechanism by which harmful tau protein aggregates are transmitted between neurons. Alongside amyloid plaques, tau aggregates in the brain are a significant factor ...

DNA vaccine reduces both toxic proteins linked to Alzheimer's

November 20, 2018
A DNA vaccine tested in mice reduces accumulation of both types of toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease, according to research that scientists say may pave the way to a clinical trial.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.