Elderly woman hands putting missing white jigsaw puzzle piece down into the place as a human brain shape. Creative idea for memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and mental health concept.

More than 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to nearly 13 million. (© Orawan - stock.adobe.com)

DENVER, Colo. — Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, may become its own global pandemic within the next few decades, a new report warns. Researchers with the Alzheimer’s Association say dementia prevalence is likely to triple by the year 2050. That means over 150 million people worldwide would suffer from the memory-robbing condition within the next 30 years.

The findings, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® (AAIC®) 2021, reveal that although the world’s health is generally improving in modern times, other factors are off-setting those gains. Researchers say their estimates show better education and improving lifestyles will likely prevent 6.2 million cases of dementia by 2050. Unfortunately, smoking rates and more people dealing with weight issues and high blood pressure mean 6.8 million people will be more likely to deal with Alzheimer’s.

“Improvements in lifestyle in adults in developed countries and other places — including increasing access to education and greater attention to heart health issues — have reduced incidence in recent years, but total numbers with dementia are still going up because of the aging of the population,” says Maria C. Carrillo, Ph.D., Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer, in a media release. “In addition, obesity, diabetes and sedentary lifestyles in younger people are rising quickly, and these are risk factors for dementia.”

Estimates show the largest increases in dementia cases are likely to be in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East.

The world’s population is getting older

Two of the major factors for this emerging trend are the planet’s growing population and the fact that people are living longer. According to the U.S. National Institute on Aging, 16 percent of the global population will be over the age of 65 in 2050. That’s double the number of seniors living in 2010.

Although the risk of Alzheimer’s increases significantly after age 65, the study finds more and more people will also be developing early onset dementia as well. Researchers say around 10 in 100,000 people develop early onset Alzheimer’s before their 65th birthday; equaling about 350,000 new cases each year.

Researcher Emma Nichols from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine examined data from 1999 to 2019 in the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study during this review. Nichols and her team discovered that dementia cases are likely to fall between 130.8 and 175.6 million within the next 30 years. On average, that sets the number around 152.8 million dementia cases by 2050 — up from around 57 million worldwide right now.

“These estimates will allow policymakers and decision makers to better understand the expected increases in the number of individuals with dementia as well as the drivers of these increases in a given geographical setting,” Nichols says. “The large anticipated increase in the number of individuals with dementia emphasizes the vital need for research focused on the discovery of disease-modifying treatments and effective low-cost interventions for the prevention or delay of dementia onset.”

Alzheimer’s deaths are increasing too

While modern medicine typically improves survival rates from serious diseases, study authors say that’s not the case with dementia. In fact, the report finds Alzheimer’s death rates have skyrocketed by 38 percent between 1990 and 2019. While medical trials continue and new treatments roll out each year, there is still no definitive cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Without effective treatments to stop, slow or prevent Alzheimer’s and all dementia, this number will grow beyond 2050 and continue to impact individuals, caregivers, health systems and governments globally,” Carrillo explains. “In addition to therapeutics, it’s critical to uncover culturally-tailored interventions that reduce dementia risk through lifestyle factors like education, diet and exercise.”

As for who is developing cognitive impairment, researchers find rates among men and women are similar. The greatest determining factor is still age. Alzheimer’s disease remains the most common form of the disease, with diagnoses of vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia following behind.

The team did find one noticeable difference in who is developing dementia. Researchers say rural populations are at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s than residents in urban areas. Scientists add that a lot of this has to do with rural areas having higher levels of chronic diseases, less access to health services, and a generally lower socio-economic status. Moreover, U.S. rates of Alzheimer’s were highest in rural parts of America’s East South Central region. For every 100,000 people over 65, 274 died from dementia.

“Identifying and understanding the reasons for these health disparities is critical for allocating key social and public health resources appropriately,” concludes Dr. Ambar Kulshreshtha from Emory University.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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