Dementia and Alzheimer's disease the leading cause of death for first time

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Dementia and Alzheimer's disease have become the leading cause of death in England and Wales for the first time, new figures show.

An ageing population and better diagnosis has led to dementia and Alzheimer's knocking ischaemic heart disease from the top spot, statisticians said.

Of the 529,655 deaths registered in England and Wales in 2015, 11.6% were attributable to dementia or Alzheimer's. That's according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Among those aged 80 or over, dementia and Alzheimer's accounted for 13.7% of male deaths. Meanwhile, 21.2% of deaths among women were caused by the condition.

Dementia shortens life expectancy, but it's very difficult to know how long someone with dementia will live for. If the person also has another life-limiting illness, their condition is likely to worsen in a more predictable way over a period of weeks or days. This may mean that the person dies from another condition (eg cancer) when their dementia is at a relatively early stage.

But someone with later-stage dementia without another life-limiting illness often deteriorates slowly over many months. They gradually become more frail, have more frequent falls or infections, become less mobile, sleep more, and eat and talk less.

And figures also show that the mortality rate for dementia and Alzheimer's has more than doubled over the last five years.

 hands of an elderly woman at home
(Peter Byrne/PA)

But due to improvements in treatment, diagnosis and awareness, the mortality rates for the other top five leading causes of death - including ischaemic heart disease, chronic lower respiratory disease, lung cancer and cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes - have fallen since 2001.

The ONS data shows that for 2015, ischaemic heart disease was the second leading cause of death, accounting for 11.5% of deaths.

But when the figures are broken down by gender, they show that heart disease is still the leading cause of death for men and dementia and Alzheimer's disease were certified as the main cause of death among women.

heart disease
(Peter Byrne/PA)

"In 2015, dementia and Alzheimer's disease became the leading cause of death in part because people are simply living longer but also because of improved detection and diagnosis," said Elizabeth McLaren, head of life event statistics at the ONS.

The figures also show large variation among age groups - people over 80 were more likely to die from dementia and Alzheimer's. Suicide was the leading cause of death for people aged under 35.

Meanwhile, breast cancer remains the leading cause of death for women aged 35 to 49.

But when all forms of cancer are grouped together, cancer was the most common cause of death in 2015, accounting for 27.9% of all deaths.

Hilary Evans, chief executive of Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "These figures once again call attention to the uncomfortable reality that currently, no-one survives a diagnosis of dementia.

"Alzheimer's Research UK's Christmas awareness campaign, launching on Wednesday, recognises this truth, that dementia is affecting increasing numbers of people and turning lives upside down.

"Some of the increase can be explained by a rise in diagnosis rates and a change in the way dementia is recorded on death certificates, offering a more accurate picture of the impact of dementia.

"With growing numbers of people living with dementia, we urgently need treatments that can stop or slow the diseases that drive this devastating condition."