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Dementia could affect 1.7m people in England and Wales by 2040, data finds

Dementia poses an “enormous threat” to healthcare systems and the general public in England and Wales, experts have warned, as data suggests 1.7 million people will have the condition by 2040.

It is already known to be among the most serious health and social care threats and a new analysis shows the total number affected could be 42% higher than previously estimated.

The research was published in the Lancet public health journal. It said the “burden on health and social care might be considerably larger than currently forecast”. Led by University College London (UCL), the study updated previous work suggesting cases would reach 1.2 million people in 2040.

“Dementia incidence followed a nonlinear trend in England and Wales with a declining trend from 2002 to 2008 and an increased trend from 2008 to 2016,” the researchers wrote.

“If the upward incidence trend continues, along with population ageing, the number of people with dementia in England and Wales is projected to increase to 1.7 million in 2040.”

The rate decreased by 29% between 2002 and 2008 but grew by a quarter between 2008 and 2016, according to the study.

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“Not only will this have a devastating effect on the lives of those involved but it will also put a considerably larger burden on health and social care than current forecasts predict,” said Dr Yuntao Chen, of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care. “Continued monitoring of the incidence trend will be crucial in shaping social care policy.”

Although an increase in dementia cases has often been put down to an ageing population, the researchers found the rate of people developing dementia in older age groups was also rising.

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Prof Eric Brunner, also of UCL, said: “Our research has exposed that dementia is likely to be a more urgent policy problem than previously recognised – even if the current trend continues for just a few years.

“We have found that not only is the ageing population a major driver of the trend in England and Wales but also the number of people developing dementia within older age groups is increasing.

“We don’t know how long this pattern will continue but the UK needs to be prepared so we can ensure that everyone affected, whatever their financial circumstances, is able to access the help and support that they need.”

James White, of the Alzheimer’s Society, said dementia was “the biggest health and social care issue of our time”. The study was a stark reminder that, without action, “the individual and economic devastation caused by dementia shows no sign of stopping”.

Hilary Evans, chief executive at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said the research exposed “the enormous threat dementia poses” to the public and the healthcare system.

“With more people expected to be living with dementia in the future, healthcare decision-makers need to wake up and put steps in place to radically improve how the condition is diagnosed and invest in capacity to do so,” she added.

Some scientists expressed scepticism, however.

Prof David Curtis, of the UCL Genetics Institute, who was not involved with the study, said: “The claim that dementia cases could be 42% higher than previously estimated by 2040 depends entirely on assuming that rates will continue to rise by 2.8% every year. I really don’t see why this should be the case.

“It is true that dementia is a huge public health problem with terrible consequences, but I do not think this study can tell us much about how many cases we may be seeing in 2040.”

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Prof Tom Dening, professor of dementia research at the University of Nottingham, also not involved with the study, said: “This is an important paper and hopefully will remind everybody that we cannot be complacent about dementia.”

Prof Dag Aarsland, professor of old age psychiatry at King’s College London, said the research underlined how dementia was among “the most important societal challenges that we face”.

He added: “Despite recent positive findings suggesting that the incidence of new dementia was declining, this well-designed study, one of the first reporting more recent trends up to 2016, shows that this initial decline has reversed and the incidence is again increasing. This trend is particularly strong among people with low education.

“While the causes for these changes are yet unknown, these findings … should be a call to society and researchers to intensify the work to find methods to prevent dementia. This is possible but requires a huge increased effort.”

While researchers hunt for new treatments, Evans, of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said ministers must ensure they take action so the burden of increased dementia risk “does not unfairly weigh” on the most deprived communities.

“We want people to know the steps they can take to reduce their own risk of developing dementia, such as keeping a healthy heart, staying connected and staying sharp,” she added.

The Department of Health and Social Care said it was committed to improving diagnosis rates, widening access to new treatments with more funding for research efforts and expanding the country’s social care capacity.