Global dementia cases set to triple by 2050 unless countries address risk factors

Jan. 14, 2022

A comprehensive analysis has forecasted dementia prevalence in 195 countries and territories and examines the impact of expected trends in exposure to four important risk factors—smoking, obesity, high blood sugar, and low education. The report says by 2050, 153 million people are expected to be living with dementia worldwide, up from 57 million in 2019, largely due to population growth and population ageing.

Dementia cases will rise in every country, with the smallest estimated increases in high-income Asia Pacific (53%) and western Europe (74%), and the largest growth in north Africa and the Middle East (367%) and eastern sub-Saharan Africa (357%).

Experts project that improved access to education could lead to 6 million fewer cases of dementia worldwide by 2050.

However, they caution that this decrease would be offset by a projected 7 million additional dementia cases linked to projected rates of obesity, high blood sugar, and smoking. Authors call for more aggressive prevention efforts to reduce dementia risk through lifestyle factors, such as education, diet, and exercise, as well as by expanding much-needed health and social care resources. 

The number of adults (aged 40 years and older) living with dementia worldwide is expected to nearly triple, from an estimated 57 million in 2019 to 153 million in 2050, due primarily to population growth and population ageing. The Global Burden of Disease study is the first to provide forecasting estimates for 204 countries worldwide, and is published in The Lancet Public Health. The study also looks at four risk factors for dementia—smoking, obesity, high blood sugar, and low education—and highlights the impact they will have on future trends. For example, improvements in global education access are projected to reduce dementia prevalence by 6·2 million cases worldwide by 2050. But this will be countered by anticipated trends in obesity, high blood sugar, and smoking, which are expected to result in an additional 6·8 million dementia cases. The authors highlight the urgent need to rollout locally tailored interventions that reduce risk factor exposure, alongside research to discover effective disease-modifying treatments and new modifiable risk factors to reduce the future burden of disease.

“Our study offers improved forecasts for dementia on a global scale as well as the country-level, giving policy makers and public health experts new insights to understand the drivers of these increases, based on the best available data”, says lead author Emma Nichols from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, USA. “These estimates can be used by national governments to make sure resources and support are available for individuals, caregivers, and health systems globally.” She continues, “At the same time, we need to focus more on prevention and control of risk factors before they result in dementia. Even modest advances in preventing dementia or delaying its progression would pay remarkable dividends. To have the greatest impact, we need to reduce exposure to the leading risk factors in each country. For most, this means scaling up locally appropriate, low-cost programmes that support healthier diets, more exercise, quitting smoking, and better access to education. And it also means continuing to invest in research to identify effective treatments to stop, slow, or prevent dementia.”

Dementia is currently the seventh leading cause of death worldwide and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally—with global costs in 2019 estimated at more than US$1 trillion. Although dementia mainly affects older people, it is not an inevitable consequence of ageing. A Lancet Commission published in 2020 suggested that up to 40% of dementia cases could be prevented or delayed if exposure to 12 known risk factors were eliminated—low education, high blood pressure, hearing impairment, smoking, midlife obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, social isolation, excessive alcohol consumption, head injury, and air pollution.

The study predicts that the greatest increase in prevalence will occur in eastern sub-Saharan Africa, where the number of people living with dementia is expected to climb by 357% , from nearly 660 000 in 2019 to more than 3 million in 2050, mainly driven by population growth—with Djibouti (473%), Ethiopia (443%), and south Sudan (396%) seeing the greatest increases. Similarly, in north Africa and the Middle East, cases are predicted to grow by 367%, from almost 3 million to nearly 14 million, with particularly large increases in Qatar (1926%), the United Arab Emirates (1795%), and Bahrain (1084%).

By contrast, the smallest increase in the number of dementia cases is projected in high-income Asia Pacific, where the number of cases is expected to grow by 53%, from 4·8 million in 2019 to 7·4 million in 2050—with a particularly small increase in Japan (27%). In this region, the risk of dementia for each age group is expected to fall, suggesting that preventive measures, including improvements in education and healthy lifestyles are having an impact.

Similarly, in western Europe, the number of dementia cases is expected to rise by 74%, from almost 8 million in 2019 to nearly 14 million in 2050 (table 1). Relatively small increases in cases are expected in Greece (45%), Italy (56%), Finland (58%), Sweden (62%), and Germany (65%). In the UK, the number of dementia cases is projected to increase by 75%, from just over 907 000 in 2019 to almost 1·6 million in 2050.

Globally, more women are affected by dementia than men. In 2019, women with dementia outnumbered men with dementia 100 to 69. And this pattern is expected to remain in 2050. “It’s not just because women tend to live longer”, says co-author Dr Jaimie Steinmetz from IHME, University of Washington, USA. “There is evidence of sex differences in the biological mechanisms that underlie dementia. It’s been suggested that Alzheimer’s disease may spread differently in the brains of women than in men, and several genetic risk factors seem related to the disease risk by sex.”

Lancet release