Dementia on the rise in Australia: report

The world’s population is ageing. In 2018, for the first time, there were more people in the world aged over 64 than under five. And as the population ages, so too does the incidence of health issues that affect older people. For many, the age health issue that springs to mind first is dementia.

Is the incidence of dementia increasing in line with age around the world? And, more relevantly to our part of the world, what do the dementia numbers in Australia tell us?

The latter question has been exercising the minds of Australian health experts more and more in recent years. Recognising the importance of keeping abreast of the trends, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) instituted the Dementia in Australia report in 2021.

In March, the AIHW released the latest version of Dementia in Australia. Here’s what it tells us about where we are with dementia and where we’re headed.

How common is dementia?

According to AIHW estimates, there are 411,100 Australians living with dementia, around 1.5 per cent of the total population. That’s a very small percentage, but narrowing the age bracket to older Australians tells another story.

Looking only at Australians aged 65 and over, for every 1000 people there are 84 with dementia. That’s 8.4 per cent, almost six times the overall ratio. Let’s think about that in everyday terms. Based on these averages, out of every 11 people you know aged 65 or older, one likely has dementia. 

And if you’re aged 65-plus yourself, that’s likely to be a solid proportion of your friendship group. 

What are the implications of these rising numbers?

The effects of dementia are many and varied, on a personal and wide-scale level. At the extreme end of the spectrum is death. In 2021, dementia was the second leading cause of death in Australia. For women it was actually the leading cause, while for men it came in second behind coronary heart disease.

As alarming as that is, concerns can be tempered to a degree by the fact that the vast majority of those deaths are at a very advanced age – well beyond 65. Proportionally, the number of deaths attributed to dementia for Australians aged under 70 is very low. That increases with age, with significantly higher levels of deaths of Australians aged over 90 attributed to the disease.

Of course, death is just one outcome of dementia, as tragic as it is. Many Australians live for decades with dementia, creating a significant burden on the sufferer and those close to them. This translates to what is measured on a national and international level as the ‘burden of disease’.

‘Burden of disease’ refers to the quantified impact of living with and dying prematurely from a disease or injury. It is measured using disability-adjusted life years (DALY). And in Australia, dementia again comes in second on the table, as it does as a cause of death. 

Using this knowledge of dementia wisely

So now that the AIHW has established the current ‘state of play’ for dementia in Australia, what next? The data clearly shows an upward trend, one that’s not likely to change in a hurry, even as scientific knowledge of dementia improves.

After US President Joe Biden had a routine medical check-up recently, questions arose about why he wasn’t tested for cognition. This led to a wider discussion across the US about what more primary physicians should do in this area.

Do Australian GPs also need to do more? The latest Dementia in Australia report states: “Services provided by general practitioners (GPs) and other medical specialists are crucial in diagnosing and managing dementia.” The report acknowledges a gap in data measuring what level of support GPs are providing for dementia. However, it says new collection methodologies are closing that gap.

While GPs could perhaps be doing more, a major roadblock is that there is no single conclusive test to diagnose dementia. At least not yet. Science has taken some pretty significant steps down that path.

For now, though, obtaining a diagnosis often involves a combination of comprehensive cognitive and medical assessments. That’s not ideal but it will have to do for now. One thing all older Australians can do in the meantime is to bring up the subject of dementia on their next GP visit.

Have you discussed dementia with your GP? Would you be comfortable doing so? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Could this VR tool one day help diagnose dementia?

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.


  1. After 12 years I have just lost my darling wife to dementia.
    It is an insidious disease that is heartbreaking to all.
    Having just read the draft govt future for agedcare it is a dismal future for the sick.
    The costings to be lumped on the aged and the ill is just a disgrace.
    Labor should hang their heads in shame

  2. The article mentions Joe Biden but IMO Donald Trump is the more demented of the two and I also think that nobody over 70 should hold high office and I am 74.
    National leaders need to be people who are in it for the long term and have a long future of their own to look forward to.
    As to dementia I am still OK but have seen several friends and relatives lose the plot soon after turning 70. Most finish up in a dementia ward where staff do their best to assist but it’s an impossible task, costs a heap of money and seems to achieve nothing other than prolonging the lives of people who no longer have a real life.

  3. My dear mother passed away 26 years ago from dementia, it was heartbreaking to see her slowly fade away in body and mind. I have cousins who have either passed or are in care with the same condition. It concerns me that I could be a candidate for this dreaded disease. I have discussed it with my GP but all he did was arrange a simple cognition test which I passed with flying colours, I would have had to have been well on the way to fail that test. He mentioned that I could have a type of brain scan but that was at some ridiculous cost. Hopefully research will come up with a simple test in the future. As we are all living longer the incidence of dementia is going to become more widespread.

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