Skip to main content

Dementia has overtaken coronary heart disease as causing the greatest burden of illness, injury and premature death in older Australians, according to a report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Among people aged 65 years and older, dementia was responsible for almost 230,000 years of healthy life lost – a figure that has increased 62 per cent since 2011, the report found.

It said dementia had overtaken coronary heart disease as the leading cause of disease burden among elderly Australians. Disease burden for a condition is estimated by combining the years of healthy life lost due to ill health with the years of life lost from premature deaths.

Dementia is not a single disease but arises from a range of disorders affecting the brain. “Dementia is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms, such as memory loss, cognitive and physical decline,” said AIHW spokesperson Melanie Dunford.

The most common types of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for around 60 per cent of cases, vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia.

“People can have multiple types of dementia at once,” Dunford said. “We know that age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, and we know that Australia’s population is ageing.”

For people aged older than 65, the risk of developing dementia doubles every five or six years.

There were 401,300 Australians with dementia in 2022, the AIHW estimated, a 4 per cent increase from 2021.

“Of these, two-thirds are living in the community,” Dunford said, emphasising that it challenged public perceptions that people with dementia lived primarily in residential aged care facilities.

Without major research developments, the number of people with dementia in Australia is expected to more than double to 849,300 by 2058.

Marie Alford of Dementia Support Australia, a service funded by the federal government, said the growing prevalence of dementia had a significant impact on carers and families.

“With two in three people living with dementia being in the community, there were up to 354,200 unpaid carers supporting them last year, often working 60 or more hours a week,” she said in a statement.

“At some stage most of us will be impacted by dementia, either ourselves or because of someone we love,” she said.

Dunford said that while age was a risk factor, dementia was not an inevitable part of ageing.

“There are several ways that people can reduce their risk… Some of these are: increasing physical activity, keeping mentally stimulated and socially engaged, reducing alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight and managing existing health conditions which are known to increase your risk of dementia, such as diabetes and heart disease.”

Associate Prof Michael Woodward, an honorary medical advisor for the non-profit Dementia Australia, said the AIHW findings were unsurprising, and pointed to a need for better diagnostics and management.

“We’re not far off making diagnosis much more accessible,” Woodward said, citing tests for Alzheimer’s that use blood biomarkers, which he said should be available clinically in the next six to 12 months. “We’re already using those biomarkers in research studies.

“We need to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent dementia or at least to delay its onset,” Woodward said. In addition to managing modifiable risk factors, “we need to develop better drugs”.

Author: Donna Lu, The Guardian Science Writer