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  • Sarah Whitebloom

Demented about Dementia?

Don't panic. But Britain seems to have the highest rate of deaths from dementia in the world - far higher than most other comparable countries - according to OLM's research into the World Health Organisation's mortality figures. WHO's most recent 2015 statistics show that the UK, followed closely by the US, recorded far more deaths from dementia than any other similar countries - even those with higher life expectancies.

According to the figures, in 2015 more than 16 per cent of over 70s in the UK and nearly 15 per cent of older people in the US died from dementia. Whereas, in Japan, fewer than three per cent were recorded as dying from dementia and the figure for Germany was under six per cent. Sounds alarming? But this should not be a cause for alarm - according to experts


One leading researcher told OLM this statistic does not mean that the incidence of dementia is greater in the UK. In fact, figures for the Prevalence of Dementia in Europe suggest that the actual incidence of the condition in Britain is in line with other similar countries.

So how can these death statistics be explained? We know that there has been considerable effort behind raising awareness in the UK and, the researcher pointed out, there could also be cultural reasons why, in other countries, dementia is not given as cause of death.

If the idea were totally discounted, that more people are actually dying from dementia in the UK and the US, the WHO figures suggest that there is heightened concern about dementia in both countries, which is not replicated elsewhere. Campaigners argue this shows that other countries are not facing up to the issue of dementia. But a leading British researcher expressed surprise to OLM, over the WHO figure in respect of Japan. It is seen as leading the world in terms of attitudes and treatment of dementia and yet has a fraction of the UK's dementia deaths. Could it be the figures are showing that attempts to raise awareness of dementia in the UK have been overly effective?

There has been considerable focus for the last few years on raising awareness. of the condition. And it has been heartening to see so many people over the last month focusing on dementia and raising cash for research. But this aware-raising may have come at a cost. Indeed, such as been the hullabaloo, you could be forgiven for thinking that we are in the middle of a dementia 'epidemic', sweeping the world, wreaking havoc upon lives of young and old alike.

Dementia is a dreadful condition, as many families know. But the reality is that most older people in the West do not contract the condition and die from heart trouble or cancer. And emphasising the condition can create false impressions about its spread and risks - tipping us into another health-related panic - which can create considerable fear or lead to complacency as dire predictions fail to materialise sufficiently quickly.

Dementia awareness has been raised - quite spectacularly - to the credit of dementia charities. But, some of the ‘epidemic-style’ rhetoric about, has led to misconceptions and increased fears about the condition - particularly among older people. So it is important to remember that a dementia ‘epidemic’ is not sweeping the globe. Neither is dementia 'like HIV'. There is a real need for dementia research. But dementia is, overwhelmingly, a set of conditions that affect very old people – and not even most of them. Currently it is most prevalent in countries with higher life expectancies - which is why the Japan death statistics are so worrying - for the UK.

Awful though it is, dementia is not an epidemic nor is it like HIV and nor is everyone going to get it. It is neither catching nor transmitted through blood fluids. Dementia is a major cause for concern and utter misery for sufferers and their families. But creating unnecessary panic and alarm is not going to help and neither is demonising dementia sufferers, by spreading such claims - and then suggesting they brought it on themselves by saying their lifestyle is to blame. There may be some contributory factors but age is the driving factor.

If it were the case that more people are dying from dementia in the UK than in other countries, we ought to focus on finding out why - and work out how to reintegrate older people into society, since the countries with lower death rates also have lower social isolation. We should do this anyway. But, while not wishing to be accused of spreading calm, there are some true facts about dementia which may take some of the fear out of the current climate of fear:

  1. Dementia is not contagious;

  2. The main driver behind dementia is age;

  3. Most female sufferers in the UK are aged 85-89;

  4. While early onset dementia is incredibly sad, fewer than one per cent of under 60s have dementia;

  5. Most older people do not get dementia. It is not a normal part of ageing. Two in three over 90s do not have it and fewer than 20 per cent of people in their late 80s are sufferers.

In an effort to raise awareness, experts also warn loudly that dementia has become an ‘urgent global health crisis that is only set to worsen’. They emphasise that the number of sufferers around the world is set to triple by 2050. It may not be their intention to whip up hysteria, and it is true to say this ‘tripling’ is based on legitimate forecasts. But what few experts make clear is that the number of people over 80 – the group most likely to develop dementia - is also forecast to triple by 2050.

OLM has deliberately not highlighted particular organisations, messages or websites, which may appear somewhat excessive in their attempts to raise awareness - although there are plenty of examples. The intentions were, no doubt, honourable - albeit, perhaps, over zealous.

While not wishing to create further calm, it must also be said there have been studies which show that dementia is not spreading as quickly as earlier forecasts suggested. In April 2016, Cambridge University research in the journal Nature Communications showed that the incidence rate for dementia has declined 20 per cent over 20 years. It showed that the risk of developing dementia for over 65s today is actually lower than for the previous generation.

How to explain the death statistics? UK experts say other countries are not ready for the imminent dementia 'epidemic'. They lecture them and warn of what is to come. But are Japan, Germany, France and Australia really so backward in recognising dementia? Or has Britain gone ‘Y2K’ all over again?

Click here to see OLM's full report.

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