Image of older woman losing parts of the back of her head and looking confused as symbol of decreased mind function in dementia.
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New research led by the University College London (UCL) reveals a troubling projection: up to 1.7 million people could be living with dementia in England and Wales by 2040. This estimate, over 40 percent higher than previously forecast, is raising concerns among healthcare experts and policymakers, as it points to a significant increase in dementia incidence rates in these regions since 2008.

Historically, studies up to 2010 suggested that dementia incidence had been on the decline in high-income countries. However, the latest study, published in The Lancet Public Health, presents compelling evidence that the trend has reversed in England and Wales post-2008.

A previous projection, published in The British Medical Journal, based on data up to 2016, estimated a 57 percent increase in dementia cases from 2016 to 2040, with the number expected to reach 1.2 million. However, the new UCL-led research, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council, suggests that the reality could be even more concerning, with a potential 1.7 million people living with dementia by 2040.

To arrive at these figures, researchers analyzed data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA), examining nine waves of information collected from individuals aged 50 and older living in private households in England between 2002 and 2019. Their findings revealed a non-linear pattern: a decrease of 28.8 percent in the number of people with dementia from 2002 to 2008, followed by a surprising increase of 25.2 percent between 2008 and 2016.

This pattern was consistent across various subgroups based on age, sex, and educational attainment. Significantly, researchers identified that disparities in dementia incidence were growing among different education groups, with slower declines in the years between 2002 and 2008 and faster increases post-2008 in participants with lower educational attainment.

According to the scientists, the most alarming revelation is that if the current rate of dementia incidence continues to increase at the same pace observed between 2008 and 2016 (a 2.8 percent annual increase), the number of people with dementia in England and Wales could reach 1.7 million by 2040—approximately double the number in 2023. This starkly contrasts with previous estimates of one million if dementia rates had continued to decline, as previously reported.

“It is shocking to think that the number of people living with dementia by 2040 may be up to 70 percent higher than if dementia incidence had continued to decline. Not only will this have a devastating effect on the lives of those involved but it will also put a considerably larger burden on health and social care than current forecasts predict. Continued monitoring of the incidence trend will be crucial in shaping social care policy,” said Yuntao Chen, PhD, research assistant at the UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care and lead author of the study.

While an aging population has often been cited as a factor contributing to the rise in dementia cases, the research also revealed an alarming trend of increased dementia onset within older age groups.

“Our research has exposed that dementia is likely to be a more urgent policy problem than previously recognized—even if the current trend continues for just a few years. We don’t know how long this pattern will continue, but the U.K. needs to be prepared so we can ensure that everyone affected, whatever their financial circumstances, is able to access the help and support that they need,” emphasized Eric Brunner, professor at the UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health Care and principal investigator of the study.

James White, Alzheimer’s Society’s Head of National Influencing, highlighted the gravity of the situation, stating, “Dementia is the biggest health and social care issue of our time. Statistics from this Lancet Public Health study are a stark reminder that, without action, the individual and economic devastation caused by dementia shows no sign of stopping.” He emphasized the importance of improving diagnosis and addressing the growing pressure on the social care system as these numbers continue to rise.

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