The number of Britons dying from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia has soared over the past two decades, according to research published today, which also shows the UK has a poor record of premature death from many diseases.
According to the study, published in The Lancet, six decades of free health care, tobacco control and increased cancer screening have "failed" to improve the UK's overall public health. Britain is said to be losing ground in fighting mortality when compared to 14 other EU member nations as well as Australia, Canada, Norway and the US. Researchers used data from the Global Burden of Disease Study, published in 2010, to show that dementia and Alzheimer's had risen from the 24th leading cause of death in Britain in 1990 to the 10th in the space of 20 years.
The increase is thought to have been fuelled by Britain's rapidly ageing population and the increased reporting of dementia as a cause of death. Dementia can cause death through medical conditions like urinary tract infections and pneumonia brought on by the infections, and malnutrition and dehydration in patients who can no longer eat or move independently.
Campaigners said the figures were a "wake-up call" and warned that the number of patients diagnosed with the diseases are likely to rise from 800,000 today to 1.7 million by 2051.
Criticising a lack of funding, they highlighted the fact that there are currently 23 medical trials for hayfever worldwide, compared to just 17 for vascular and frontotemporal dementia – two of the three most common forms of the condition.
The Alzheimer's Society said Britain's health authorities needed to take "urgent" action. Dementia, which affects one in three people over the age of 65, costs the economy more than £23bn annually.
"Funding for dementia research lags far behind other conditions like cancer," said Andrew Chidgey of the Alzheimer's Society. "With numbers soaring and costs trebling, we need urgent action to find more effective treatments."
The study also showed that between 1990 and 2010, life expectancy in the UK increased by an average of 4.2 years to 79.9. But the trend masked declines in life expectancy when compared with other nations with similarly funded levels of healthcare.
Twenty years ago, Britain was ranked 10th in a league of 19 counties for life lost per 100,000 people – the standard format for measuring premature deaths. By 2010 it had slipped to 14th in the same table.
Cirrhosis of the liver and drug disorders have also increased as causes of premature deaths in the UK, the study said. Tobacco headed the list of mortality causes, accounting for 12 per cent of the "disease burden", followed by high blood pressure and diseases associated with obesity.
"There is still plenty of room for bold action by politicians and the body politic," said Edmund Jessop of the Faculty of Public Health.