Dementia is the UK’s biggest killer – we need political action to save lives

Dementia is the biggest killer - ARUK (1)

By Michael Jones | Tuesday 12 December 2023

Dementia robs us of everything that matters. Our memories. Our connections. Our story.  

And our latest analysis confirms the scale at which it is robbing lives across the UK. In fact, it’s doing more than any other health condition.  

Today, we’ve pulled together the latest data from the three agencies that track official causes of death across the country – the Office for National Statistics (which covers England and Wales), the National Records of Scotland and the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency – to uncover the full scale of dementia’s impact across the UK. 

Our new analysis shows that, in 2022, dementia continued to be the UK’s biggest killer, accounting for more than one in ten of all deaths across the country. In total, it claimed more than 74,000 lives. 

At Alzheimer’s Research UK, we will not stop until we can save people from dementia. And we’ll continue our work to revolutionise the way dementia is treated, diagnosed, and prevented.  

But we can’t do this alone. That’s why – with a General Election likely at some point in 2024 – we’re calling on all political parties to commit to making dementia a priority.  

We hope these statistics will prompt parties from across the political spectrum to share our vision of a future where there is a cure for dementia. One in which people can be free from the fear and heartbreak of this devastating condition. 

Let’s take a closer look at what the data show – and what they don’t.  

What do the new data show? 

Last year, dementia took the lives of 74,261 people across the UK – that’s about 5,000 more than 2021, and a 7.1% increase.  

But how does dementia cause death? As diseases like Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia progress, they damage more and more of the brain. This damage eventually affects areas of the brain that control the body, causing systems to go wrong and shut down, eventually leading to death.  

And how do these figures compare to other conditions? Over the past two decades, deaths from many major common conditions, including heart disease, lung cancer and cerebrovascular disease (which includes strokes and aneurysms) have fallen. At the same time, deaths from dementia have risen. 

It’s long been clear that dementia affects women more than men – it has been the leading cause of death in women in the UK since 2011. And women continued to be at greater risk last year, with 48,000 dying from the condition compared with over 26,000 men.  

Among the devolved nations, Northern Ireland had the highest dementia death rate at 11.8%, compared with 11.4% in England and Wales, and 10% in Scotland. 

Shelle Luscombe knows too well the human toll behind these figures, having lost both her parents to dementia. “Seeing the impact dementia had on my dad and then my mum was devastating. It’s a cruel condition and, as things stand, anyone diagnosed faces a very bleak and terrifying one-way street, which wreaks havoc on the whole family,” she told us.  

“This new analysis from Alzheimer’s Research UK is a massive wake-up call. We need action now if we’re to stand a chance of changing the outcome for the next generation and beyond”. 

Does this paint an accurate picture?  

Despite the stark picture these figures present, we fear they are almost certainly an underestimate.  

That’s because many people with dementia don’t ever receive a formal diagnosis. And this, in turn, means that the fact they have dementia would be unlikely to appear on their death certificate.  

In fact, around one in three people over 65 with dementia in England, Northern Ireland and Wales remain undiagnosed. In Scotland it’s around two in three. 

This means that the figures about who gets diagnosed and where are frustratingly incomplete. NHS England aims to ensure 67% of people with dementia receive a diagnosis – in other words, even if these targets are met (and they haven’t been for some time, despite recent improvements), it would still mean a third of people who develop dementia will never receive a diagnosis. 

And it’s also worth noting that these data – which are the best available – don’t break the condition down into the different types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, or frontotemporal dementia.  

In other words, it’s the best picture we have, but there are parts of it missing and the resolution is poor.  

Why are rates increasing? 

While we can’t pinpoint the exact reasons behind the increase in dementia deaths last year, there are multiple reasons behind the overall upward trends in diagnosis and death. 

For a start, the UK’s population is ageing. Age is the biggest risk factor for developing dementia, so it’s expected that we’ll see rates of people with dementia increasing and, unfortunately, deaths from it rising too. The number of people living with dementia in the UK is predicted to increase from 944,000 today, to more than 1.6 million by 2050.  

Looking back over a longer term, it’s important to note that the way dementia deaths have been recorded by the Office for National Statistics has changed, with two specific changes in 2011 and 2014. Previously, they’ve attributed many dementia deaths to other conditions, like cerebrovascular disease (which includes strokes and aneurysms) and a form of lung infection called aspiration pneumonia. But with these changes, they’re now attributed to dementia – leading to a jump in the statistics.  

But there’s another factor that also appears to be contributing to the increase. As our understanding of dementia’s risk factors grow, it’s becoming clear that some communities are feeling the impact of dementia risk more than others. For example, many of the most disadvantaged communities in the UK are at a greater risk of dementia because of their increased exposure to factors such as air pollution. And recent research has suggested that widening inequalities in society are leading to an increase in dementia rates.  

While as individuals we can address and improve on some aspects of our lives, it’s much harder to influence things like air pollution – and it’s around these so-called ‘social determinants’ of health that we want to see government action. 

What we need to turn the tide on dementia 

Millions of people have been saved thanks to advancements in medical research – the COVID vaccine is a clear example of that. We want to see the same for dementia, and we’re confident that one day we will. 

Life-changing progress is being made in the labs every day, and we are now on the cusp of a first generation of treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, something that many thought impossible only a decade ago. 

We’re also witnessing rapid advances in how people with dementia are diagnosed. New ways of diagnosing the diseases that can detect dementia earlier and more accurately, like blood tests for Alzheimer’s disease, are showing promise. And new insights are showing how we can reduce the number of people developing dementia in the first place by addressing factors that affect our brain health. 

But these new figures bring a new sense of urgency to our cause, and we need government support in the form of sustained, bold, and ambitious action. By harnessing the advances we’re seeing in research, leaders in government and the NHS can help transform the way dementia is treated, diagnosed, and prevented. And by doing so, we hope that together we can eventually turn the tide against these awful statistics and save people from the heartbreak of dementia. 

You can read more about our recommendations to government here. And if you’d like to campaign with us for a cure, then we encourage you to join our campaigner network today 

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About the author

Michael Jones

Evidence Manager