Research published today (Friday 21 August) in The Lancet Neurology journal indicates that the number of people with dementia – both new cases and total numbers with the condition – in some Western European countries is stabilising despite population ageing.
The study looks at data from five large epidemiological studies done in Sweden, the Netherlands, the UK and Spain that compare dementia occurrence in older people across two periods of time using similar methods of diagnosing dementia in the same geographical regions.
Findings from four of the five studies analysed showed non-significant changes in overall dementia occurrence over the past 20 to 30 years. The UK study showed a reduction (about 22%) in overall prevalence in people aged 65 years in 2011 than the predicted estimates in 1990, resulting in stabilisation of estimated numbers of people with dementia. Results from the study conducted in Zaragoza (Spain) showed a decline in dementia prevalence in men aged 65 and older (about 43%) between 1987 and 1996. The studies conducted in Stockholm (Sweden) and Rotterdam (the Netherlands) showed that the age-specific incidence of dementia is falling in these regions.
The authors point to improvements in education, living conditions and a general reduction in dementia risk factors (such as vascular disease) over recent decades as being a factor behind the decrease in dementia prevalence.
According to the researchers, although the decrease in dementia occurrence is a positive sign, dementia care will remain a crucial challenge for many years because of population ageing.
Jeremy Hughes, Chief Executive of Alzheimer’s Society, said: “While this study is welcome in showing that the percentage of people in particular age groups developing dementia could be getting smaller, the overall number of people with dementia is still set to increase as more people live into their 80s and 90s. With no cure, few effective treatments and an economic impact exceeding that of cancer or heart disease, dementia remains the most critical health and social care challenge facing the UK.
“This paper draws conclusions from the only suitable studies conducted in Europe – only five covering just four countries from over 15 years of research. This limited evidence may not indicate a continuing trend and we know that there are other risk factors for dementia, such as diabetes, that are increasing. We urgently need to improve the quality, coverage and regularity of research into the prevalence and numbers of people with dementia. Without this, we only have estimates to work on which can vary widely and can lead to poor health planning that can drastically affect our ability to make care better.
“The good news is that this research indicates improvements in healthcare, lifestyle, education and living standards in Western Europe are combining to play a role in reducing dementia prevalence. Today’s findings should energise the health system to do more to raise awareness and reduce our risk of dementia. Alzheimer’s Society will continue to lead in increasing public understanding of dementia and responsible risk management.”