21 Aug 2015

Dementia in decline, latest research suggests

It’s the best news in dementia research for years. So why is no one celebrating?

A really important piece of dementia research was published today in the Journal Lancet Neurology. Important because it completely reverses the prevailing view that over time the number of cases of dementia will continue to grow as people inevitably live longer.


Doomsday projections for dementia were largely based on studies conducted in the 1980s and 90s. The biggest UK study from 1989 led to estimates of 850,000 cases by 2015, with one million sufferers by 2025 and two million by 2051.

But today’s new analysis of dementia across Europe by the same team that produced the UK data above, shows that dementia cases have not risen at all – in fact in the UK at least, they appears to have gone down.

The reason, the authors speculate, is that although the population is ageing, they are healthier now than 20 or 30 years ago. Known risk factors for dementia like high blood pressure and heart disease are lower now. And preventative factors like more healthy lifestyles and better education are more common.

Brighter future?

So why are dementia charities not welcoming the research with open arms? As far as I can tell they’re worried that a suggestion dementia is somehow “under control” or “decreasing” will mean it gets ignored after a long battle to raise awareness.

And up to a point they are right to worry. If the latest analysis is right, there will still be 670,000 people living with dementia in the UK for the foreseeable future.

There are still no treatments to prevent or even slow the devastating disease. The health system is still poorly equipped to deal with them and the state of social care in the UK currently means life for dementia sufferers is likely to get worse long before it gets better.

But what the new study does show is that other public health efforts over the last few decades to reduce things like heart diseases, high blood pressure, stroke and obesity are doing the most right now to prevent dementia.

The obvious conclusion is that those health interventions have to continue while work towards dementia treatments should carry on in parallel. If that happens the future could look like no one predicted – one with far less dementia and more, healthy, older people.

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