Dementia is one of the most tragic things that can happen to a person. It can occur for many reasons, but the end result is the same: Disorientation, degradation of memory and cognitive skills, and a lack of awareness about what is happening around a person. According to available statistics, 50 million people throughout the world have some sort of dementia.
However, there seems to be hope when it comes to the disease: Rates of dementia are declining, and so is the risk of acquiring it. This is a remarkable change and obviously a very welcome one.
According to available research, dementia rates declined by 13% in the United States from 1988-2015. If these trends hold, it would mean tens of millions of fewer people with the disease in the next few decades. One of the key reasons for this change was a drop in Alzheimer’s diagnoses, which appears to have declined by 16%.
What is causing this decline?
It is important to note that this decline was in the western world, which is typically more technologically and medically advanced. This is important because awareness of the causes of dementia are better understood in these places. Seniors and others who are more likely to develop dementia are also more likely to have appropriate medical care, intellectual stimulation, and proper social interactions. All of this can decrease the chances of someone getting dementia.
Furthermore, many health issues are linked. One of the most prominent causes of dementia are Alzheimer’s Disease, and medical science has made remarkable strides in preventing and treating this tragic disorder over the past decade. This, in turn, has helped to reduce dementia rates.
It is also important to understand that many other causes – albeit less common ones – can lead to dementia. As noted by the Mayo Clinic, this can include nutritional deficits, immune system problems, brain tumors, and more. In all of these areas, medical sciences have made significant advances. Indeed, even among these less likely causes of dementia, treatment has improved to the point that it has impacted dementia rates.
What does it mean for dementia and America?
The decline in people getting dementia or Alzheimer’s doesn’t fundamentally mean that fewer total people will acquire dementia over the course of their lives. This is because America is becoming a much older country, and though the risk of getting dementia appears to be on the decline, more people are aging and living longer lives. Thus, the raw numbers of people with dementia will be the same, and the same number of people may ultimately have this tragic disease.
However, for the average person living today, this study is good news. Their odds of getting dementia or Alzheimer’s as they age are unquestionably dropping.
This has broader public policy implications as well. Many in American have been worried about the coming so-called “Silver Tsunami.” This is a clever way of discussing the rapid aging of American society, in which the average American is not only getting older but the percentage of elder Americans that make America’s overall population is increasing. This demographic change has a variety of implications on public policy, health care, and finance.
One of those key impacts is that on public health, as there have consistently been fears that the number of patients with Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia would be too much for the health care system to bear in its current state. That may still be the case in the future. However, it does seem clear that rates of both of these diseases are dropping, and that can only have a positive impact on our long-term health care concerns.
Dementia increasing in some places
As noted by stories on the study, one of its stranger aspects is that the rates of decline of both of these diseases appear to only be happening in America and western Europe. In other parts of the world – like certain sections of Africa and Japan – rates of dementia are actually increasing.
There are many theories behind why this may be the case. One possibility is higher rates of smoking. Smoking is on the decline in America and western Europe but remains higher in other sections of the world, and there seems to be clear evidence that smoking increases dementia rates by as much as 50%. It is also possible that the United States and other areas of Europe have done a better job of improving a variety of risk factors that lead to dementia, including high blood pressure. Controlling high blood pressure can reduce dementia risk.
There seems to be no question about it: Dementia and Alzheimer’s are on the decline in the United States. This is good news. However, it is important that we do a better job of understanding just why this is the case. Doing so can help to improve our understanding of both of these disorders and potentially help us to make other broad-based public policy improvements that can have a positive impact on the health of tens of millions of people.