There’s good news and bad news about dementia.
The distressing part is that a brand-new study reveals the number of dementia cases is about to rise dramatically – tripling by the year 2050.
But the good news is it could’ve been a lot worse, and researchers say there’s still hope to curb the rise! Here’s the important information that can help you save your memory…
Researchers with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine report that by the year 2050 the number of people with dementia in the world will triple to reach a staggering 152 million.1 (That’s compared with 50 million people over the age of 65 who are currently living with dementia world-wide, according to the World Health Organization.)2
Why? It all boils down to lifestyle choices. That’s right, the study does not point to genetics or a lack of progress towards a pharmaceutical breakthrough, but to simple daily choices that we all should avoid.
For instance, the researchers say that a poor diet, lack of exercise and too much stress are leading to a higher incidence of dementia. So many people still smoke, are drastically overweight and have diabetes. And still others have high blood sugar (but do not yet have full-blown diabetes). These factors are putting many folks at high risk for memory problems.
Now for the good news: The researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics say now more than ever before is the time to focus on the positive lifestyle factors that science shows are already at work curbing the dementia numbers.
Medical Care, Diet, Exercise and Education Choices Matter
One positive lifestyle factor is that more people are working to keep their hearts healthy by getting treated for cardiovascular problems. That helps brain health because many memory impairments are linked to a restriction of the brain’s blood supply. I would add that treatment not only includes medication; a healthier diet and exercise program are a critical part of any cardiovascular care routine—whether for treatment or prevention.
Another important lifestyle factor is the increased access people have to educational resources. Getting more education as a child and as an adult lowers your dementia risk. (Although recently we reported on a new study that took this view into question, most of the science points to obtaining an education as important to memory protection. Or to be more exact, if you want to avoid dementia it’s essential to challenge the brain with difficult tasks.)
So, in a nutshell, the researchers figure that improved heart health and education levels will prevent almost as many new cases of dementia as smoking, obesity and blood sugar issues will cause in the coming years.
However, the numbers of dementia cases can still balloon because of one enormous factor that seemingly can’t be avoided: our aging population.
It’s a simple equation – the older you are, the greater your risk for dementia. And right now the U.S. National Institute on Aging estimates that eight percent of the world’s population is over the age of 65, and that figure will double to 16 percent by the year 2050.
If we dig further into the latest research, it reveals more about the graying or our population and who is getting—and dying from—Alzheimer’s disease or dementia in the United States.
The Deadly Epidemic of Alzheimer’s in Rural America
The researchers explain that, on average, the rural population is more elderly than the rest of the U.S. – and therefore at a greater risk of dementia.
Interestingly, the researchers also note that people living in rural areas are more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia than people in urban areas. (They also have a lower life expectancy.) The scientists believe that these differences are connected to more poverty in rural areas, higher levels of chronic disease (heart disease, diabetes, etc.), more limited availability of internet access and fewer health resources including primary care physicians. I think we can also suggest that residents of some of these areas have lower levels of education as well.
Furthermore, there are three other important findings…
- Increase in death from Alzheimer’s disease in certain states. Among all areas of the U.S., mortality rates for Alzheimer’s are highest in rural areas in the East South Central region of the U.S. – Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. The death rate in those states from Alzheimer’s is 274 per 100,000 among people over age 65.
- Increase in Alzheimer’s-related deaths. In the United States, from the year 1999 to 2019 the mortality rate from Alzheimer’s in the overall population jumped by 88 percent – from 16 to 30 deaths per 100,000.
- More cases of early onset dementia. Every year about ten in every 100,000 people are diagnosed with what is called “early onset dementia” – dementia that begins before age 65. That adds up to ten million new cases annually worldwide.
While these trends are all very disturbing, don’t forget the silver lining. The research provides additional proof that our lifestyle not only matters, it’s vital if we want to avoid memory loss of any kind.
The types of protective measures revealed above are not a mystery. Start with your diet: Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and healthy fats. Limit your sugar consumption. Stay away from processed foods. Get daily exercise, regular sleep and manage your stress levels. Address any cardiovascular problems—but if you follow the recommendations I just mentioned, you’ll likely have far fewer of them. And, as I’ve always believed, keep learning. Not only will it enrich your life, but it will also protect your memory.
- World Health Organization, Dementia fact sheet. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/dementia