Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia have replaced heart disease as the leading cause of death in England and Wales for the first time. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than 61,000 people died of dementia last year – accounting for 11.6% of all recorded deaths.
According to the experts, an increase in life expectancy coupled with a decrease in the number of people suffering from heart problems is to blame for the change. Additionally, it is thought that doctors have got better at diagnosing dementia, with the disease being given more weight on death certificates.
"Dementia is one of the biggest, NHS and social care challenges facing us at the moment. The UK population is growing and we are living longer: these factors are very likely to increase the number of people being diagnosed with dementia because the biggest risk factor for dementia is increasing age. In addition, we are leading healthier lives and screening and early treatment for diseases such as cancer and heart disease have advanced. There is no cure for dementia, but there is hope with new research and development of medications designed to slow down the progression of Alzheimer's and ideally halt the symptoms."
Who is affected?
Most dementia deaths were recorded amongst women – for whom the disease is the leading cause of death – responsible for 15.2% of all deaths in 2015, up from 13.4% in 2014. In men, heart disease remains the leading cause of death, accounting for 14.3% of deaths.
Despite what many people might think, dementia is not a natural part of ageing. It is the term used to describe different brain disorders that trigger a loss of brain function. However, it is most common in the elder generation, and is thought to affect roughly one in six people over the age of 80.
There is no way of telling whether a person will develop dementia or not. While some people are more at risk than others (for example, a typical 80-year-old woman is much more likely to develop dementia in the next five years than a typical 30-year-old woman), the disease cannot be tracked to a single cause.
Dementia is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time. It's important to remember that dementia doesn't just cause memory loss – it actively damages the brain which, in turn, is in charge of our entire system; from our heart to our lungs to our digestion, meaning that dementia can reach far beyond the brain, affecting our whole bodies. It is this that can eventually cause death for the sufferer.
This means that, as our cognitive abilities start to decline, so does our ability to stay healthy and well. Eventually, the disease will affect the brain so much that it will be unable to control other areas of the body and they will start to shut down. Dr MacSweeney says:
"Many people who are afflicted by the disease are likely to die from medical complications associated with having dementia, including infections and pneumonia. Eating a healthy diet, exercising the mind and body, having regular health checks and maintaining a healthy BMI are all actions believed to help in reducing risk for dementia."
Although it is a terminal disease, the gradual nature of dementia means its subsequent effects on life expectancy will depend on various factors including the type of dementia, overall health and lifestyle.
The recent research shows that the mortality rate for dementia, which was the second leading cause of death for the previous four years, has more than doubled since 2010. This has led to urgent calls for increased research and advances in treatments. Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer's Research UK, said:
"These figures once again call attention to the uncomfortable reality that currently, no-one survives a diagnosis of dementia. Dementia is not an inevitable part of ageing, it's caused by diseases that can be fought through research, and we must bring all our efforts to bear on what is now our greatest medical challenge."
Martina Kane, of the Alzheimer's Society, also highlighted the need for increased services.
"It is essential that people have access to the right support and services to help them live well with dementia and that research into better care, treatments and eventually a cure remain high on the agenda."