International research shows dementia rates falling by 15% per decade over last 30 years

20 March 2019

International experts have today (Wednesday 20 March) presented research indicating that dementia incidence rates may be falling by up to 15% decade on decade. The findings will be discussed today (Wednesday 20 March) at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2019 in Harrogate.

Dementia currently affects 850,000 people in the UK and the condition is now the country’s leading cause of death. While the number of people living with dementia is set to rise dramatically as the population ages, this shift may be masking more positive news on an individual level.

While there haven’t been any new drug treatments for dementia in nearly 20 years, lifestyle changes could be helping to bring down dementia rates and new risk reduction strategies could further prevent or delay dementia

Nearly 500 top scientists have gathered at the Harrogate Convention Centre this week for the UK’s largest annual meeting of dementia researchers. The Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference is a forum for researchers to forge collaborations and share new research findings over two days of talks.

Comedian and actor, Stephen Fry welcomed scientists to the Conference in a video message highlighting the vital importance of dementia research.

Prof Albert Hofman, Chair of the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, attended the Conference to present the latest insights into how dementia rates seem to be changing over time.

Analysing data from seven population-based studies in the United States and Europe, Prof Hofman and a global team of researchers set out to determine changes in the incidence of dementia between 1988 and 2015.

Of 59,230 individuals included in the research, 5,133 developed dementia. The rate of new dementia cases declined by 15% per decade, a finding that was consistent across the different studies included in the analysis.

The preliminary findings presented at the conference are set to be published in full later this year.

Prof Hofman, said:

“Looking over three decades, the incidence rate of dementia in Europe and North America seems to be declining by around 15% per decade. This finding is more pronounced in men than women and is likely to be driven by changes in cardiovascular risk factors and lifestyle.

“We know that recent decades have seen a radical decline in smoking rates for men. While many people may have been persuaded to stop smoking due to an increased risk of cancer or heart disease, it is also a key risk factor for dementia.

“With other dementia risk factors such as obesity and diabetes on the rise, this apparent decline in dementia rates may not continue for long.

Prof Alina Solomon, from Sweden’s largest centre of medical academic research, the Karolinska Institute, will present new findings from research into strategies that could help to ensure that dementia rates continue to fall.

Her work is building on findings from the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER) study. This pioneering trial provides the first evidence from a large randomised clinical trial that a multi-approach lifestyle intervention may help to prevent thinking and memory problems.

Prof Alina Solomon, said:

“In future, prevention strategies that combine drug treatments and lifestyle changes may be the most effective strategy to limit the impact of dementia. While new drugs take many years to develop, lifestyle changes are available to us all.

“We’re working to identify diet, physical activity and brain training programmes that will be most impact on dementia risk. By testing these in different populations around the world, we’re focussed on making sure our findings will benefit the widest group of people possible.

The prevention session at the conference will also see from Dr Claire McEvoy from Queen’s University Belfast discuss the role of how diets effect the rate of decline in memory and thinking and Prof Fiona Matthews from the University of Newcastle who will give a UK focus on the promise of dementia risk reduction.

A recent poll conducted by the UK’s leading dementia research charity found just a third (34%) of people think it’s possible to reduce their risk of developing dementia while 77% of people think it’s possible to reduce their risk of heart disease.

Dr Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK said:
“The Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference has grown enormously in recent years, reflecting renewed urgency and a growing momentum to support research to overcome dementia. We are now able to attract the best dementia scientists from across the world to share their new findings alongside the UK’s own world-leading research.

“Risk reduction research is a key focus for Alzheimer’s Research UK and our work will help transform the current dementia landscape. Our Mike Gooley Trailfinders Charity Prevention and Risk Reduction Fund represents the UK’s largest charitable investment in dementia prevention research and is supporting ongoing projects exploring strategies to help support healthy brain function into old age.

“While there is no drug to yet slow or stop diseases like Alzheimer’s, there is robust evidence that what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain. As well as maintaining a healthy blood pressure, the best current evidence suggests that not smoking, only drinking within the recommended limits, staying mentally and physically active, eating a balanced diet, and keeping cholesterol levels in check can all help to keep our brains healthy as we age.”