When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, good news is hard to come by. So I couldn’t help but feel a glimmer of optimism as I read that rates of the ruthless, memory-robbing conditions are actually on the decline – at least for now – in the United Kingdom.
According to a study released Tuesday in the The Lancet, the percentage of people age 65 and older suffering from all forms of dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) in England and Wales has fallen by nearly one-quarter in the past 20 years, from 8.3 percent in 1991 to 6.5 percent in 2011. If such a trend is occurring in the United States, and continues, it could mean the future doesn’t look as bleak as suggested by studies forecasting that both the number of people with dementia and the costs of caring for them here could double by 2040.
It could also mean that, on some front, people are taking better care of themselves.
“I find it extremely interesting,” says Huntington Potter, PhD, director of Alzheimer’s Disease Programs at University of Colorado School of Medicine. “I think it’s good news that in some area of health care we must be doing the right thing,”
Potter notes that poor cardiovascular health, poor blood sugar control, and poor education have all been linked to higher rates of dementia later in life. People born later in the 1900s, rather than earlier in the century tend to have been better educated and had better access to prevention and treatment, so it stands to reason that dementia rates might actually start to fall as those generations age.
The Lancet article is among the first to show it’s really happening.
The study, by University of Cambridge researchers, looked at 7,796 people age 65 and between 2008 and 2011 to determine dementia prevalence. Then it compared that prevalence with that found in a previous study – with a similar sample size, identical testing methods, in the same region – between 1989 and 1994. Applying the prevalence from 20 years ago to the current population, the authors estimated that 884,000 people would have dementia today. Instead, only 670,000 did.
At a time when one Alzheimer’s drug after another is failing, the study drives home the point that what you do earlier in life – eat right, take care of your body, exercise your brain – can have a huge impact on your chances of suffering dementia in old age.
But it also raises some concerning questions:
If dementia rates are going down as those born in the frugal Depression Era are hitting old age, then will they go back up again as those born in the age of video games, fast food and obesity epidemics turns 65?
Even more concerning, if public policy makers think dementia rates are falling, and expect them to continue to do so, will they slash funding to study a cure?
“It would be dangerous to assume that because the incidence is going down in the UK it is going down everywhere and we don’t have to worry about Alzheimer’s disease anymore,” says Potter. “That would be totally incorrect.”
Potter notes that no matter what we learn about prevention, there are still millions of people who already have dementia, or are soon to get it. And they need a cure to slow it down, or even reverse it.
“We need an intervention that is much more effective than small lifestyle changes,” he says.
Even if one battle has been won, the war is far from over.
Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer in Lyons, Colo. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.