Washington state data on cognitive impairment and firearm storage

    WA Dept of health.jpg

    The following is more information about the data used in JoNel Aleccia and Melissa Bailey's story for Kaiser Health News about the presence of firearms in the homes of aging Americans with impaired or declining mental faculties.

    Mark Serafin, an epidemiologist with the Center for Health Statistics at the Washington State Department of Health, agreed to analyze previously unpublished data from the state’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System for Kaiser Health News.

    The BRFSS is the nation’s gold-standard system of telephone surveys that collect data from U.S. residents about health-related behaviors, chronic conditions and use of preventive services, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    Established in 1984, BRFSS collects data in 50 states, the District of Columbia and three U.S. territories, with more than 400,000 adult interviews each year. It is considered “the largest continually conducted health survey system in the world.”

    States administer a core of surveys, but they’re also able to add certain modules to measure additional health questions. Two of the modules focus on cognitive impairment and firearm storage. In 2016, Washington state collected data for both of those modules, the only state to do so, according to the CDC.

    The cognitive impairment module, which asks participants to answer questions about memory and cognition in the past year, is administered only to people 45 and older. Overall, there were nearly 9,000 cases in 2016 for which Serafin compared worsening cognitive impairment and firearm ownership. Serafin separately analyzed data for more than 4,400 respondents aged 65 and older.

    He found that about 5 percent of all respondents aged 65 and older reported both cognitive decline and firearms in the home. That represents about 54,000 of the state’s more than 1 million people aged 65 and older, Serafin said.

    About 1.4 percent of respondents 65 and older reported cognitive decline – and that they stored their weapons unlocked and loaded. That represents about 15,000 people in Washington state with worsening memory and confusion who store their weapons unsafely.

    Serafin cautions that the answers are self-reported and that people who’ve actually been diagnosed with dementia likely are unable to respond to the survey.

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