Dementia Cases Will Soar—With Major Geographic Disparities

By Nicholas Chan | January 26th, 2022

A new study predicts dementia cases will rise three-fold. Developing countries are expected to be the hardest hit.

Eastern sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East are projected to bear the burden of the greatest rise in dementia cases from 2019 to 2050, according to a recent study. 

The Global Burden of Disease study, published in The Lancet Public Health, predicted that 153 million people across the globe will be living with dementia by 2050, up from 57 million in 2019, and developing and underdeveloped countries will be hit the hardest. 

But the projected surge in dementia cases can be curtailed. In light of their findings, the researchers are calling for greater focus on not only supporting those affected by the illness, but also on developing effective treatments and dementia prevention programs.

As geriatrician and neuroscientist Dr. Howard Fillit reflects on findings gathered in dementia prevention research throughout the decades, he finds great optimism in the fact that science has shown there are strategies to reduce dementia risk, or to delay the onset of the illness. 

“With all of the research that’s been done on prevention of dementia over the last 30, 40 years, there’s a very positive message in all this: Dementia can be prevented or delayed,” Fillit, the study’s coauthor, and the cofounder and chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, told Being Patient. “It’s not an inevitable outcome of aging.” 

In the recent study, the researchers estimated that improved access to education will lead to six million fewer dementia cases by 2050; but this will be offset by seven million additional dementia cases linked to smoking, obesity and high blood sugar. And, the increases in population and longevity worldwide are expected to be the main contributors to the growth in dementia cases.

With fast-growing populations in years to come, Eastern sub-Saharan Africa (357 percent), North Africa and the Middle East (367 percent) are projected to see the largest rise in dementia cases. But the aging population in North Africa and Middle East is expected to be a major factor in the region’s expected increase in dementia cases as well. 

On the other hand, the study projects that the high-income Asia Pacific region (53 percent) and Western Europe (74 percent) will record the smallest increase. In these regions, populations are estimated to shrink in the coming years, helping counter increases in dementia cases due to longevity. 

The forecasted rise in dementia cases doesn’t only differ by geography, but also by gender. The study showed that women with dementia outnumbered men by 100 to 69 in 2019, a trend that is projected to continue through 2050. This difference can be partly attributed to women’s longevity, the researchers wrote. In the case of Alzheimer’s, however, it isn’t exactly clear why women are disproportionately impacted by the disease. But scientists are probing into a host of potential risk factors specific to women, including estrogen levels, menopause and hormone therapy

In the meantime, experts emphasize that the choices people make in their daily lives can help reduce their chances of developing dementia. As a past study has shown, 12 dementia risk factors throughout life, whether it be exercise, social engagement, or alcohol consumption, could altogether help prevent or delay 40 percent of dementia cases worldwide. Even though people’s risk of developing dementia is also influenced by factors beyond their control, including genetics and family history, Fillit noted that delaying the onset symptoms in 40 percent of dementia cases through living a healthy lifestyle would make a huge difference for society, families and their loved ones. 

“The average life expectancy in the United States is about 80 years old,” Fillit said. “The average age of onset of dementia is about 75. Imagine if you could delay the onset of dementia — through lifestyle, and managing comorbidities like diabetes, hypertension and probably heart disease — just by five years. That means yes, you might actually increase your longevity, but you might also … live your old age without losing your mind.” 

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