Dementia is now the number one cause of death in England and Wales, overtaking heart disease. 11.6% of deaths now result from the condition – compared with 11.5% for heart disease, according to official figures. Although the detection rate has risen, there is still no cure at this time.
The ageing population and rising numbers of people suffering from dementia is putting a strain on the NHS – which is already bearing the burden of treating the growing number of frail elderly people.
The numbers from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) reveal that women are more likely to die from dementia than men – but this is because they live longer. Last year, 41,283 women died from dementia – some 15.2% of the total deaths. By contrast, 20,403 men died of the condition. Heart disease therefore remains the biggest cause of death for men, taking 36,731 lives each year or 14.3% of the total. In comparison, 24,987 women died of heart disease – with strokes, breathing problem and lung cancer being the next most frequent causes of death.
Deaths resulting from heart disease have halved over the course of the past 15 years. This can be attributed to the trend towards quitting smoking, and the use of drugs such as statins. Statins lower LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels in the blood and reduce its production in the liver. However, despite the falling death rate for heart disease and many other serious conditions, the number of people dying from dementia has doubled over the past six years.
Those suffering from dementia typically see a decline in their ability to remember things – together with problems with language or planning. As the disease progresses, they can become frail and undernourished, putting them at a higher risk of having a fall. They will then be unable to fight off infections such as pneumonia which will often be the immediate cause of death – with dementia being the underlying factor.
A number of factors are influencing the statistics – these include that people are surviving other diseases and therefore living long enough to catch dementia. The death rate has declined for all age groups besides over 85s – where the number of deaths has risen by over a quarter since 2001.
Other factors include that the Government embarked on a three year push for better diagnosis three years ago. While previously only around half of the 850,000 people thought to have the condition knew about it, now almost two thirds are aware. Increased awareness and better diagnosis means that dementia is now being recorded as a cause of death, which has not always been the case previously.
What you can do
John Newton of Public Health England has emphasised that people need to make lifestyle changes to reduce their risk of the condition. These include exercising, eating sensibly, drinking less and quitting smoking. A Mediterranean diet is thought to be beneficial. Staying mentally active can also help maintain or improve your cognitive abilities as you grow older. For more information see the Alzheimer’s Society guide ‘Science behind the headlines: How to reduce your risk and other popular topics’.
In addition to making lifestyle changes, it’s important to recognise that any of us could lose mental capacity at any time regardless of our age. Besides dementia, a serious accident resulting in a brain injury, an illness or stroke could leave us unable to manage our own affairs. A Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) allows you to nominate someone to look after your finances and property, or make decisions about your health and care. It allows you to choose someone you trust in advance, and to restrict the powers they have if you want to. Sadly most people associate LPAs with the elderly and delay making this document. If they lose mental capacity, their relatives or friends have to go to Court to obtain a Deputyship Order which is a long, complex and expensive process. Making an LPA now can avoid expense later down the line and ensure that the people you trust are the ones who will help you should you need them in the future.
Get in touch with our Later Life Planning team for more information.