The numbers for 2015 are in and, according to the Office for National Statistics, dementia is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales. It has overtaken heart disease, which had been top for decades. So is this good news or bad? Well, what it shows is that we’re actually getting healthier as a nation: The risk of heart disease can be lowered by good diet and exercise, so the current decreasing trends could be due to the population eating more healthily and staying active. Heart disease also tends to cause death earlier in life, while dementia is a bigger problem with the elderly, so the people who are currently bypassing the risks of heart disease are now living long enough to deal with the troubles of an aging brain.
If we delve deeper into the statistics, however, we can see that certain groups are lagging behind. Men, for example, are still more likely to die of heart disease than of anything else, and the same is true for the population as a whole in Scotland. If we are to close national and gender gaps in life expectancy, heart disease needs to remain a priority. The challenge for future generations will be to balance this with the rise in dementia deaths, which cause massive emotional and economic disruptions to the lives of loved ones.
Dementia is defined by a prolonged degeneration in the brain, causing patients to progressively lose their physical and mental capacities, until they eventually need round the clock care and can’t remember the people around them. The disease progresses slowly and impairs both cognitive function and the patients’ ability to fight infections and other physical dysfunctions, so it incurs extensive care and costs. As far as we can tell, there are no specific causes except old age, and a handful of genes that add a slight risk, meaning, scarily, that there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves – not yet anyway. The increase in dementia prevalence means it’s quickly rising up the public agenda. This should lead to more money invested in research that will hopefully yield new treatments and preventative strategies.
These changes in mortality trends matter because they signal big changes in the society we live in. Yes, we are getting healthier, but this comes at a price – the price of caring for an ageing population, consisting of millions of people who can no longer support themselves. Society needs to be ready to face the challenges set by the ageing population, signalled by this turning point in the way we are living and dying.
This article was written by Isaac Shaw and edited by Teodora Aldea.