The UK’s biggest killer: why are deaths from dementia on the rise?

Recent news headlines have reported dementia is the leading cause of death in the UK. Dr Clare Walton from our research team looks at the reasons why deaths from dementia are on the rise and how the numbers compare with deaths due to other major diseases.

The latest death statistics for England and Wales, released by The Office for National Statistics (ONS), showed the number of people dying of dementia is steadily increasing year on year. 

In contrast, the number of people dying from heart disease and stroke has been declining.

In 2015, dementia overtook heart disease and stroke as the UK’s biggest cause of death.

This graph shows the percentage of all UK deaths from the top four leading causes in 2017. These were dementia, heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.

Top four causes of death in the UK

Data taken from Dementia Statistics Hub

Why is dementia now called the biggest cause of death in the UK?

There are a few reasons why dementia is now being called UK’s biggest killer.

  • More people are getting a diagnosis

A greater awareness and understanding of dementia mean more people are now receiving a diagnosis.

We estimate that two thirds of people with dementia in the UK have been diagnosed which is up from only 40 per cent of people in 2012.

Alzheimer’s Society has long campaigned to increase the diagnosis rate so that people with dementia can gain access to vital treatments and support services.

With more people receiving a diagnosis, the figures are getting better at showing the true scale of dementia in the UK.

  • People are living longer 

Due to medical advances, more people than ever are surviving heart disease, strokes and many cancers. 

Age is the biggest risk factor for dementia, so as we are living longer the number of people developing dementia is increasing.

Dementia is a life-limiting condition and more research is needed to find treatments that can slow or stop the diseases that cause dementia from worsening.

  • A change in the way deaths are recorded

Reliable death records are important to follow changes in the impact of diseases and to decide priorities for medical research.

In 2011, the ONS made changes to the way deaths due to dementia are recorded to better reflect guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO). 

Now if a person dies with dementia, doctors can report it as the main cause of death on their death certificate. Previously, the immediate cause of death would be listed, such as a fall or an infection like pneumonia. 

But in many cases, these illnesses are a result of the underlying dementia causing increased frailty, a weakened immune system or problems with swallowing. 

The ONS also updated their coding system so that vascular dementia would be reflected in the dementia category instead of the stroke (cerebrovascular disease) category.

How does the rise in dementia compare to other diseases?

Under the revised methods, the ONS groups all forms of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease together into one category. 

In 2018, dementia was given as the leading cause of death in the UK, listed on 12.8 per cent of all death certificates. 

In contrast, cancer is separated out by disease type so lung cancer, breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, etc are all analysed separately. Lung cancer caused the most deaths of all cancers in 2018, recorded on 5.5 per cent of death certificates. 

However, if all the different types of cancer were grouped together, cancer would have been responsible for the 27 per cent of UK deaths last year.

This graph shows the leading causes of death in women in England and Wales in 2018 with all types of cancer combined. (Age standardised death rates per million women). 

Urgent action is needed to turn things around

Although things are changing, current death records are still a big underestimation of the true numbers of people dying with dementia.

Two recent studies estimated that over 40 per cent of people who die with dementia in the UK still do not have it recognised on their death certificates.

Whichever way you cut the numbers, dementia is rising and is a major health crisis. 

With an ageing population, no effective treatments to slow it and an overstretched care system, we need to take action. 

We need to boost investment into research for treatments that can slow or prevent dementia. Research is also critical to find effective ways to care for people with dementia from diagnosis through to the end of their lives. 

Medical progress has saved and improved the lives of thousands of people with heart disease, stroke and cancer and now it’s time to see the breakthroughs in dementia too.

Support dementia research

Alzheimer’s Society is working tirelessly to challenge perceptions, fund research and improve care and support. We rely on your donations. Let’s take on dementia together.

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Add your own

Yes, support research for a cure but in the meantime, we must do things to improve the quality of life for those currently living with dementia. They can’t sit in boredom and loneliness waiting for a cure. These two things must happen together!

Hi Mary, thanks for your comment.
We agree – improving the quality of life for people living with dementia now is very important.
In fact, Alzheimer’s Society is the only UK charity investing in research into the cause, cure, care and prevention of dementia.
You might be interested in learning more about our research Centres of Excellence. They focus on themes that really matter to people living with dementia – such as the best ways to support people after a diagnosis and how to live well with dementia:
We are always dedicated to defeating dementia through research.
Sign up to our monthly research update to learn more:
Alzheimer’s Society blog team

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