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Why Dementia Is Rising, Can You Stop It?


The proportion of older people who die of dementia and other neurological disorders (e.g., Parkinson’s disease) is growing at a rapid rate, and the United States leads the pack among the biggest Western nations. This situation is an “epidemic,” according to the author of a new study, and raises questions such as why is dementia rising, and what can you do to stop it?

Dementia happens to young people too

Between 1979 and 2010, deaths related to neurological conditions rose 66 percent among men and 92 percent among women in the United States. During that same time period, the United Kingdom experienced increases of 32 percent and 48 percent, respectively.

These dramatic rises are accompanied by another startling fact: that the age of individuals affected by dementia and other neurological conditions is falling. In addition to the United States and the United Kingdom, other countries in the study included Australia, Canada, Italy, and the Netherlands.

A recent article from the Australian press, for example, reported that an increasing number of people in Australia are being diagnosed with dementia as young as age 35. While an organization called Alzheimer's Australia is taking steps to help families deal with early onset dementia, the reasons for the growing numbers is unknown.

Battling neurological disease is a tremendous challenge at any age, as is the impact on the individual’s family. When the illness hits decades before what has been considered typical—that is, among people younger than 55—the blow is especially hard because it affects earning capacity.

Professor Colin Pritchard of Bournemouth University and his colleagues report on this “hidden epidemic” and note that it cannot be attributed to the fact that people are living longer, nor can it be blamed on genetics, because the increase has occurred too quickly.

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Why are neurological diseases changing?
So where does the blame lie? According to Pritchard, experts can only speculate at this point, but all indications point to “multiple environmental factors.” He noted that “we need to recognise that there is an ‘epidemic’ that clearly is influenced by environmental and societal changes,” but that no one factor can be highlighted.

Some of those indicators are the fact that more women than men are being affected by these neurological disorders, that cancer deaths are declining yet the incidence of cancer continues to rise, that autoimmune diseases are also increasing, and that male sperm counts are declining.

Are our rapidly advancing technologies and gadgets having a negative impact on the human brain? Pritchard pointed out that the dramatic increase in environmental assaults from things such as chemical food additives, non-ionizing radiation from cell phones and other electronic devices, and more exposure to air and water pollutants, among other hazards, are the likely players.

Can we stop the rise in neurological disorders and associated deaths among increasingly younger adults? The authors do not offer a solution, but merely point out the need for people to be aware of the problem.

Therefore any chance to find a solution, at least at this point, may lie with the individual. Perhaps each person’s efforts to avoid environmental assaults from food, water, and air as much as possible and adopt healthful lifestyle habits (e.g., no smoking, regular exercise, stress reduction) can help ward off the rise in dementia, Parkinson's disease, and other neurological disorders while researchers search for answers.

Pritchard C et al. Changing patterns of neurological mortality in the 10 major developed countries 1979-2010. Public Health 2013 Apr; 127(4): 357-68

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