The disease that kills every 29 minutes

Dementia is now the second leading cause of death among Australian men in 2019, overtaking lung cancer, in the Causes of Death data released on Friday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

More than 160,000 people died in Australia last year, a rise of 6.8 per cent from 2018.

Dementia remained the leading cause for women in 2019 and accounted for just over 15,000 of the 169,301 deaths in 2019.

The number of deaths caused by dementia has increased by 67 per cent over the past decade.

This trend follows past trends and, without a treatment, will likely remain a leading cause of death in coming years.

“With more than 447,000 Australians currently living with dementia, and the number expected to increase to almost 1.1 million by 2058, dementia is the chronic disease of the 21st century,” Dementia Australia chief Maree McCabe said after last year’s Causes of Death report was released.

“Australian and international research shows there is a lack of knowledge about dementia and the global World Alzheimer Report released on 21 September 2019 reveals a staggering 95 per cent of people think they will develop dementia in their lifetime.

“While age is a risk factor, dementia is not a normal part of ageing.

“It is a progressive and, ultimately, terminal disease.

“With a lack of understanding comes discrimination. People living with dementia share with us the impact that discrimination has on their everyday life.

“Discrimination around dementia is a potential barrier between major breakthroughs in research and funding that could improve the lives of people living with dementia.”

Ischaemic heart disease was the leading cause of death for all Australians, accounting for 10.8 per cent of all deaths in 2019.

“Heart disease remained the leading cause of death, with more than 18,000 deaths in 2019. Heart disease is the leading cause among men and is responsible for twice as many male deaths as dementia,” said director of Health and Vital Statistics at the ABS, James Eynstone-Hinkins.

“For all Australians, heart disease, dementia, strokes, lung cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases (which includes emphysema) made up the top five leading causes of death.”

Last year’s increase in coronary heart disease deaths is concerning, says Heart Foundation director of health strategy, Julie Anne Mitchell.

“Over about 50 years, there has been a decline in heart disease deaths in Australia, so it is disappointing to see the uptick in the figures …” she said.

“This is not a trend we would want to see continue, given the sad toll that heart disease takes on patients and their families. The Heart Foundation is committed to bringing these numbers down. Fifty deaths a day is unacceptably high.

“We have seen rises in some risk factors for heart disease, such as for overweight and obesity, as well as a lack of inroads into others, like physical inactivity and poor nutrition. Add this to our high rates of high blood pressure and cholesterol, and it becomes clear there is still a lot of work to be done in encouraging Australians to understand and reduce their risk.”

All cancers combined for 49,432 deaths in 2019, with lung cancer the most common cause of cancer death, followed by colon cancer, blood and lymph cancers, prostate and breast cancer.

Influenza and pneumonia accounted for 4124 deaths, rising from the 12th to ninth leading cause of death between 2018 and 2019.

Perhaps the most sombre statistic was the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 49 – suicide – which also accounted for the highest number of years of life lost.

In 2019, there were 12.9 suicide deaths per 100,000 people making it the 13th most common cause of death in 2019.

The most common contributors associated with suicide deaths included mood disorders including depression, psychoactive substance use disorders, relationship issues and past suicide attempts.

Top 10 causes of death in 2019, for both men and women:

1. Ischaemic heart disease

2. Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

3. Cerebrovascular disease

4. Malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lung

5. Chronic lower respiratory disease

6. Malignant neoplasm of colon, rectum and anus

7. Diabetes

8. Malignant neoplasm of lymphoid, haematopoietic and related tissue

9. Influenza and pneumonia

10. Diseases of the urinary system

The $11.3 million set aside in the 2020 federal budget for dementia care was welcomed by Dementia Australia, but the organisation believes the condition is still not receiving the attention it deserves.

The failure to provide targeted and dedicated supports, workforce training and system changes for people living with dementia, their families and carers is concerning, says Ms McCabe.

“There is an assumption that more money for aged care means that quality dementia care will also be addressed,” she said.

“The stories highlighted to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety plus those shared by people living with dementia, families and carers during the COVID-19 pandemic starkly reveal that dementia is not core business for the sector.

“The additional $8 billion investment in aged care is welcomed.

“However, with more than two thirds of people in residential aged care living with dementia, unless we see dementia-specific targets in workforce training and education, regulation and quality, people with dementia, their families and carers will continue to fall through the gaps.

“The impact of COVID-19 alone demonstrates this. While many members across the community have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, this has disproportionately affected people living with dementia, their families and carers.

“This has resulted in a decline in cognitive functioning and the loss of abilities for many people living with dementia, as a result of changes to routine, lack of mental stimulation and social isolation.

“There is also a subsequent flow-on impact for carers.

“The calls by Dementia Australia to invest in quality dementia care through targeted outreach and early intervention, workforce training and capacity building and its translation into quality dementia has been overlooked in this budget.”

Were you aware that dementia is a leading cause of death for both men and women?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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