As people live longer and the treatment of disease gets more advanced, the main killer in England and Wales has shifted. While heart disease used to be the main cause of death, this has been overtaken for the first time by dementia.
The latest mortality rates released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) have shown that dementia, including Alzheimer’s, now accounts for 61,686 deaths per year, or 11.6 percent of the total number of deaths in England and Wales. This shift is thought to be due to both an aging population and a greater awareness of the disease, which means it is now given more weight on death certificates.
“These figures once again call attention to the uncomfortable reality that currently, no one survives a diagnosis of dementia,” says Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, in a statement. “Some of the increase can be explained by a rise in diagnosis rates and a change in the way dementia is recorded on death certificates, offering a more accurate picture of the impact of dementia.”
While those being diagnosed with, and subsequently dying from, dementia have been on the rise, conversely the other top four causes of death in 2015 – heart disease, lung cancer, cerebrovascular disease, and chronic lower respiratory diseases – have been declining over the last 15 years. The mortality rate for dementia has in fact doubled since 2010, highlighting the need for increasing support services to help those diagnosed with the condition, as well as to encourage further research.
“Dementia is not an inevitable part of aging, 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,” explains Evans. “With growing numbers of people living with dementia, we urgently need treatments that can stop or slow the diseases that drive this devastating condition.”
When broken down, the new statistics show startling differences between different age and sex groups. For example, for young people between the ages of 5 and 19, the leading cause of death is suicide, while for men as a group it is heart disease. For women, dementia is still the overall biggest killer, but for those between the ages of 35 and 49, it is cancer. While dementia is the largest overall cause of death, when all types of cancer are combined, they still kill more people each year than any other condition.
Clearly, incredible advances have been made in public health. For dementia, researchers need to continue to focus on how best to move forward and tackle this difficult condition.