Dementia cases set to triple by 2050

The hands of an older adult with a blue ribbon tied around one finger.
New research predicts the global burden of dementia by 2050. Catherine MacBride/Stocksy
  • Globally, about 153 million people will have dementia by 2050, according to a new study.
  • Risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and high blood sugar could be responsible for almost 7 million of these cases.
  • Estimated increases of dementia cases in the Middle East and areas of Africa are much higher than those in Western Europe and the Asia Pacific region.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe dementia as a general term for “the impaired ability to remember, think, or make decisions that interfere with doing everyday activities.”

Dementia is not an expected part of aging, it stems from any among a variety of diseases or injuries that affect the brain. It is progressive and the seventh leading cause of death worldwide.

The disease affects people differently, but experts broadly classify three stages:

  • Early stage: This is characterized by being forgetful and losing track of times and places.
  • Middle stage: Early symptoms become more apparent, communication may become difficult, and changes in behavior may accompany increased forgetfulness and confusion at home.
  • Later stage: This is characterized by near total dependence and inactivity.

Cases of dementia are on the rise, having increased by 117% from 1990 to 2016. Globally, an estimated 57 million people were living with dementia in 2019.

According to the recent Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, which appears in The Lancet, this figure is expected to triple to an estimated 153 million in 2050.

The study is the first of its kind to provide forecasting estimates for 195 countries worldwide.

Dementia and lifestyle factors

The GBD study, which analyzed 635 existing studies, was led by researchers at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The scientists aimed to improve current dementia projections by including recognized dementia risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, high blood sugar, and low education.

The study projects a huge increase in the number of dementia cases, from 57.4 million cases in 2019 to 152.8 million cases in 2050.

The researchers found that the prevalence of dementia with age was fairly stable — the increases were largely due to population growth and population aging. However, they predicted that by 2050, almost 7 million cases could have resulted from lifestyle factors.

Lead study author Emma Nichols, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told Micro B Life that these figures could be higher if other risk factors were accounted for.

“While our study focused on the impact of expected trends in modifiable risk factors, other studies have suggested that up to 40% of all dementia cases could be prevented if risk factors were eliminated.”

Speaking with MBL, Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Research UK, who was not involved in the study, said:

“These striking figures lay bare the shocking scale of dementia across the world. Today, there are already 57 million people too many living with this devastating condition. […]The news that almost 7 million new global cases could be down to poor heart health must act as a wake up call for us all.”

“The new [GBD] study is a stark reminder of the growing global challenge of dementia” said Prof. Bart De Strooper, the director of the UK Dementia Research Institute, at University College London, who was not part of the study.

In an interview with MBL, he warned that the risk factors studied are only part of the bigger picture, explaining that “The genetic makeup of an individual is at least as great a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease as lifestyle.”

“Whilst stacking the odds in your favor with lifestyle choices is advisable,” he continued, “sadly, we know millions of individuals will still go on to develop dementia, and that’s why we urgently need more discovery research that will bolster the race to cures.”

Dementia cases by country

Until now, estimates of dementia cases in individual countries had not been published. The GBD study highlights a large difference between countries in the projected prevalence of dementia between 2019 and 2050.

While the team projected an increase in dementia rates in every country, there were large disparities.

They predicted that cases in the United Kingdom would rise from 907,000 to nearly 1.6 million by 2050 and saw similar modest increases in the higher-income Asia Pacific region, with a predicted rise from 4.8 million to 7.4 million by 2050.

In contrast, estimates for eastern sub-Saharan Africa increased 357%, from 660,000 to more than 3 million by 2050. North Africa and the Middle East also showed a huge increase of 367%, with a predicted case number of 14 million by 2050.

The wider impact

MBL also spoke with Dr. Karen Harrison Dening, head of research and publications at Dementia UK, who was not involved in the study.

She highlighted that the likely rise in dementia cases means that “We need to be mindful of the various risk factors of this condition. From an early age, maintaining a healthy routine replete with a balanced diet and enough exercise can help reduce the risk of onset of the condition more widely.”

Every dementia expert who spoke with MBL agreed that lifestyle changes need to be supported by increased investment in public health.

Dr. Harrison Denning spoke of the need to improve “the quality and access to post-diagnostic dementia support, which is still out of reach for many families. […] Until we get a firm dementia plan from the government, with dementia specialists at its core, this will continue to be one of the greatest health challenges of our time.”

A global effort to fight dementia

Dr. Nichols told MBL that “Understanding the burden of disease both globally and at the country level is critical for policy makers and decision makers to understand the magnitude of the problem and to appropriately plan for future increases.”

“We hope that our country-specific estimates of future dementia prevalence can be used by governments to prepare adequately for the increase in the supports and services that will be needed by individuals with dementia and their caregivers.”

– Emma Nichols

Evans, echoing these thoughts, commented that “Dementia doesn’t just affect individuals, it can devastate whole families and networks of friends and loved ones.”

“The heartbreaking personal cost of dementia goes hand in hand with huge economic and societal impacts, strengthening the case to governments across the world to do more to protect lives now and in the future.”

It is never too early

“There is robust evidence that what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain,” explained Evans.

“Not smoking, only drinking within the recommended limits, staying mentally and physically active, eating a balanced diet, and keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check can all help keep our brains healthy as we age.”

“With many thinking about new year resolutions,” she continued, “I would urge people to consider some simple steps we can all take to stay brain healthy. It’s never too early or too late to start, and Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Think Brain Health Hub can show you how.”

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