Looking Towards the Future: WHO Reports Alarming Increase in Dementia and Worrisome Projections

As the Baby Boom generation ages, the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported a significant increase in cases of dementia. There were some 55 million cases of dementia reported worldwide in 2019, and the WHO predicts that by 2030, that number could reach approximately 78 million, an increase of  42%. The WHO went even further and also predicted that by 2050, the number could be 139 million, a 153% increase from 2019.

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is an overall term for illnesses that include the loss of memory, language, problem solving, and other critical daily functions. When these cognitive abilities become impaired, it can greatly affect daily life. There are multiple diseases that fall under the general term “dementia,” including Alzheimer’s, Lewy’s Body Dementia, Vascular Dementia, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. With roughly 60-80% of all dementia cases classified as Alzheimer’s, it continues to be the most diagnosed form. The second most common form is Vascular Dementia, which accounts for 10% of cases. Other forms of dementia each make up approximately 5-10% of reported cases.

The overt symptoms of dementia can vary depending on the impact on any given part of the brain. For example, the effects of Alzheimer’s are most observed in terms of memory due to the damage of the brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the brain’s learning and memory center.

Unfortunately, dementia is a progressive disease, meaning it is permanent and worsens over time. Medication, however, can help slow symptoms down, and the treatment of other conditions that often manifest themselves alongside dementia can also help with the treatment for dementia itself. These conditions include depression, excessive alcohol consumption, thyroid issues, vitamin deficiencies, and other medical side effects.

Charting New Roads - Increase in rates of dementia

What Can Be Done For the Future?

While the projected numbers of dementia cases can look daunting, it is now time to prepare for the future. With the aging population growing, awareness and research will be more important than ever. Many high-income countries have increased their budget allocations for such research in recent years. The United States, for example, has increased funding from $631 million to $2.8 trillion. After all, cases in dementia are just as prevalent in high-income countries, counting for 56% of the cases reported globally.

The WHO has also been encouraging nations to plan for the increase in case numbers, particularly in low and middle-income countries where facilities, support, education, and care regarding all that pertains to dementia are of a much lower standard. As it is, many countries do not have a national policy, plan, or funds for treatment, forcing patients to rely heavily on relatives, which in turn can cause those unpaid caretakers to leave the workforce. 

Lastly, this expected increase in dementia cases over the next 10-30 years must continue to be monitored in light of COVID-19, as the virus may further increase the risk of dementia in older patients.