When it comes to dementia, things are never cut and dry. Now, two newly published reports offer conflicting conclusions regarding how widespread Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia will be in the coming years.
One article, published in the November edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, gives a rare dose of good news—aging adults are apparently less likely to experience profound cognitive impairment and other signs of dementia than they were a decade ago, while a different analysis by Alzheimer's Disease International (ADI), a global federation of Alzheimer's associations, claims worldwide dementia cases will triple by mid-century.
Probably both groups.
Though they uncovered the promising trend of declining dementia risk among aging adults, Kenneth Langa, M.D., Ph.D., professor of Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and his fellow study authors write, "The combined effects of longer lives and the dramatic bulge of baby boomers reaching old age will magnify the epidemic in future decades." This statement lends credence to the ADI report's conclusion that dementia will impact 135 million people around the world by the year 2050.
Why we're better at staving off cognitive decline
Langa and researchers from the Group Health Institute, a non-profit healthcare system, and the University of California, San Francisco, examined the results of five separate studies conducted on older individuals (at least 65 years old) from the United States and Europe. All five investigations concluded that the percentage of the elderly population suffering from cognitive impairment was declining from year to year.
For example, one study tracked the prevalence of cognitive impairment in individuals enrolled in the U.S. Health and Retirement Survey, an ongoing analysis of Americans age 51 and older. Between 1993 and 2002, the dementia rate in people over 70 dropped from 12.2 percent of the population to 8.7 percent.
Study authors concluded that much of this declining dementia rate could be attributed to factors such as improved lifestyle habits and more people pursuing higher education. Regular exercise, eating right and keeping the mind active and engaged have all been linked to a reduced risk of dementia.
They do caution, however, that the current rise in obesity and diabetes in younger people may well reverse this positive trend.
Why more people will develop dementia—and what's being done about it
Even if poor eating and exercise habits don't lead to more dementia cases in industrialized countries, the ADI report indicates that cognitive impairment will start to strike harder in elderly residents in underdeveloped nations.
Worldwide, an estimated 71 percent of people with dementia will live in low-and middle-income countries by 2050; a trend fueled primarily by an increase in the average lifespan of the citizens in these growing nations.
"Dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, is one of the biggest global public health challenges facing our generation," the ADI paper states. The organization suggests a multi-pronged approach for combating the disease by reducing worldwide incidences of obesity, smoking and hypertension; investing more money in scientific research for dementia treatments and cures; and increasing education, awareness and support for those with dementia and their families.
In mid-December, representatives from Alzheimer's organizations from each of the G8 countries—the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, Russia, Canada and Italy—will gather in London for a summit aimed at increasing international cooperation for dementia research and care. The U.K. has been at the forefront of the movement to discover how to create a dementia-friendly society.
"While we continue to pursue tomorrow's cures, it is critical now more than ever to pay serious attention to what we can do to reduce the average number of years living with the condition," said U.K. Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt in a press release. "The G8 today have a unique chance to come together to help people manage dementia better, lead healthier lives and deliver real improvements in care."
One way to support individuals with dementia is to change the way society views those affected by cognitive impairment. One of the simplest strategies for breaking the stigma attached to dementia is to gain an insider's perspective on life with Alzheimer's and really get to know those who struggle with the disease, as well as the various other types of dementia.