A silver lining to the rising tide of dementia
We’re all familiar with the studies and news reports that present dementia as a ticking public health time bomb in the heart of the developed world. And while it’s true that global dementia rates continue to rise due to ageing populations, a new study suggests that the actual per capita incidence may be in long-term decline. In other words, while the brute number of people with dementia may continue to increase due to demographic changes, the chances of anyone in particular developing the disease are in fact diminishing.
The study, published in JAMA Neurology, measured incident dementia in a population sample of 1350 people over the age of 70 and without dementia at enrolment, between 1993 and 2015. Dementia incidence declined in successive birth cohorts. In those born before 1920, incidence per 100-person years was 5.09, which dropped to 1.73 for those born in the latter half of the 1920s.
The researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York identified a tipping point in those born after 1929, in whom dementia incidence started dropping significantly.
They say their results are broadly consistent with previous studies, which saw a drop-off in the incidence of dementia from around 1990. That would be around the time when those born after 1929 were entering their 60s, at which point age-related dementia becomes more prevalent.
But they say it’s not easy to tease out why the decline in dementia incidence has occurred. Some experts have pointed out that it correlates with a trend towards greater levels of education, but the researchers say that adjusting for education levels did not attenuate the decline in dementia incidence.
Another potential explanation is improved cardiovascular health. Vascular risk factors increase the odds of dementia and the incidence of stroke has declined in recent decades, just as management of cardiovascular risk factors have improved. The researchers say this could partially explain the decline in dementia incidence, but not totally. Improved nutrition is another possible explanation, unexplored by the study. For the moment, why the decline has occurred remains, to some degree, a mystery.
The study authors also found an increased prevalence in diabetes over the years of the study. Dementia is linked to diabetes so this higher prevalence may, in the future, serve to increase the rates of dementia.
They say more work needs to done to further elucidate what’s happening and whether the decrease in dementia incidence will offset the increase due to the ageing population.
You can read the study here.