Dementia levels may be stabilising

Written by Active Minds on Thursday the 3rd of September 2015.

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New research conducted by Cambridge University suggests that the number of people currently living with dementia is lower than predictions made just over 10 years ago. Using data spanning 60 studies from 1991 to 2011, researchers found that the number of people  with dementia has effectively ‘levelled off’ rather than increasing as previously expected.

In 1991, studies predicted that more than 8% of people aged over 65 would be living with  dementia. In actual fact, the current figure is just 6%. That’s 670,000 dementia patients instead of the 810,000 predicted.

This trend for stabilising levels was prevalent across Western Europe but especially in the UK and Spain, where the number of people with dementia has actually fallen. The figures are especially surprising considering that numbers had been expected to rise with an increasingly aging population.

The levelling-off or stabilising of dementia cases could be down to a number of factors, researchers say, including improvements in healthcare and education. For example, a lack of exercise and heavy smoking have been suggested as risk factors for dementia. Better health education can help encourage people to take better care of themselves, potentially leading to a drop in numbers of those living with the condition. Previous people with dementia were also more likely to have lived through other factors leading to poor health — such as wars and outbreaks of disease — whereas a new, generally healthier population would be less at risk.

This in itself is an exciting development, says lead researcher Professor Carol Brayne, who pointed out that the data shows that “[There may be a] preventable component within individuals, and across whole populations.” That numbers have stabilised despite the fact that they should have increased with an aging population indicates that some lifestyle changes can have a positive impact on deferring the onset of dementia.

Sadly, this demonstration of an increase in good health is not the case across the board. While the number of people who smoke, for example, might be decreasing, obesity levels in the UK remain on the rise. With diabetes, hypertension, a lack of exercise, and vascular disease all listed as potential risk factors for dementia, the trend for obesity could cause dementia levels to increase again in years to come.

However Doctor Matthew Norton from Alzheimer’s Research UK hopes that this will not be the case, saying, “Measures to help people adopt healthy lifestyles now could have a real impact on the numbers of people living with dementia in the future.”