Dementia deaths are on the rise in Australia and the disease is now the nation’s second biggest killer, after heart disease, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) says.
The number of elderly Australians is projected to almost triple by 2050. By then, there is likely to be just under one million people in the nation suffering from some form of dementia.
Alzheimer’s Australia CEO Carol Bennett said there were 342,000 Australians living with the condition.
“We’ve gone from the third leading cause of death, to the second leading cause of death in a year, that’s a massive increase,” Ms Bennett said.
“It is a very debilitating condition, and it’s certainly one that has an enormous cost and social impact on the community.”
The ABS said 11,000 deaths were caused by dementia in 2013, an increase of 30 per cent in five years.
The most common type of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which damages the brain, often resulting in impaired memory.
Ms Bennett said the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is old age.
She said if more money is not spent on caring for an ageing population, dementia would place an enormous strain on the public health system.
“We certainly can’t afford to rest on our laurels when it comes to the increasing rate of dementia in this country,” she said.
“If we do, we are not going to be able to look after the growing number of people who are going to present with this condition in the coming years.”
Dementia research ‘lags behind other diseases’
The ABS report paints a picture of the shifts in mortality in Australia.
Dementia is now more deadly than strokes and all types of cancer.
Professor Perminder Sachdev, co-director of the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing at the University of New Wales, said there had not been enough investment in dementia research.
“I think we are still at an early stage. I think we are at where cancer was maybe 20 to 30 years ago,” Prof Sachdev said.
“The investment in dementia research has lagged behind other diseases considerably.”
Prof Sachdev said a cure for dementia was likely to be a long way off.
“It’s still some way away before we fully understand the mechanisms (of dementia) and again, find effective treatment,” she said.
“But that shouldn’t make us very pessimistic because I think we are finding there are a number of things one could do to possibly prevent dementia.”
Prof Sachdev will lead a new research project at the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing, Dementia Momentum, which aims to pool international research on dementia.
Richard Grellman, chairman of Genworth Mortgage Insurance, IPH Limited and AMP Foundation, said Dementia Momentum would also ask the private sector to chip in to pay for research on dementia prevention.
“We feel that the private sector ought to be concerned about this, if for no other reason than for economic reasons,” he said.
“We know that age is one of the many factors that will see dementia visit itself on more people because of that ageing population.”
Mr Grellman said corporate Australia could play a bigger role to fund future research on the brain.