Scientists Probing U.K. Dementia Levels Get Pleasant Surprise

Science lately is painting a surprisingly rosy picture of old age.

The prevalence of dementia has declined in the U.K. in the past 20 years, confounding researchers’ expectations, according to a study published in The Lancet today. A week ago, Danish scientists said they’d found people surviving past the age of 90 were mentally sharper than a decade ago.

The latest study on aging found that only 6.5 percent of the sample people interviewed in Cambridgeshire, Nottingham and Newcastle between 2008 and 2011 showed symptoms of dementia. A similar study conducted between 1989 and 1994 pointed to results above 8 percent. Dementia costs the U.K. economy about 23 billion pounds ($34.7 billion) a year, according to Alzheimer’s Research UK.

“One interpretation of the findings is that general health and health management has improved to the extent that it has helped reduce dementia risk, which is encouraging,” Eric Karran, director of research at the group, wrote in a comment accompanying the study.

Dementia is marked by severe memory loss and develops slowly. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and patients may have trouble carrying out daily tasks and experience changes in their personality, according to Karran’s group.

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Early education and heart-disease prevention can help while diabetes, obesity and a lack of physical activity can have the opposite effect, said the researchers, led by Carol Brayne of the Cambridge Institute of Public Health at Cambridge University.

Women are more susceptible to dementia, a bias known to researchers and confirmed in the latest study. About 7.7 percent of women were estimated to have dementia compared with 4.9 percent of men. The researchers also found more people with dementia lived in nursing homes than 20 years earlier.

The study, funded by the U.K. Medical Research Council, consisted of interviews with 7,796 people aged 65 and older. The researchers compared the results with those of a similar study conducted between 1989 and 1994 in the same locations.

“This study shows individual risk is decreasing, although the absolute number will continue to grow because the population is aging,” Tony Arthur, professor of nursing science at University of East Anglia, who worked on the study, said in an interview.

Dementia is a progressive, terminal disease and there is no cure, Karen Harrison Dening, interim Head of Admiral Nursing at Dementia UK, said in an interview. Some treatments can alleviate symptoms though she advocated stress reduction and emotional support to the patient and caregiver.

The study results will be presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Boston today.

The Alzheimer’s Society estimates there will be 1.7 million people living in the U.K. with dementia in 2051 as baby boomers age and risk factors such as obesity increase.

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