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Dementia has overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in England and Wales, according to latest figures from the Government’s Office for National Statistics (ONS).

It says that the change is largely due to an ageing population, with people living longer and more likely to suffer from dementia in their final years. Meanwhile some of the other main causes of death, including heart disease, have gradually decreased as treatments improve.

Doctors have also become better at diagnosing dementia and the condition, in its many forms, is now more likely to be recorded as the cause of death on death certificates, which is where the ONS gathers its data.

Last year more than 61,000 people were officially recorded as having died from dementia, accounting for 11.6% of all recorded deaths in England and Wales. More than two-thirds (41,283) of these deaths were seen amongst women, with dementia accounting for 15.2% of all female deaths in 2015, up from 13.4% the previous year. Again, this rise can be linked to the generally ageing population, as women tend to live longer than men.

When the figures are broken down by gender or age group, other causes of death are still more prevalent. For example, looking at only men, heart disease remained the main cause of death in 2015. For women aged 35 to 49 breast cancer remained the biggest killer, while for the youngest age group, from five to 19, suicide was the biggest single cause of death.

The figures also separate out different types of cancer, but if all types of cancer are taken as a group it remains the most common cause of death overall.

However, people should not get unduly worried about dementia because of the new figures. It is not that the disease itself is “growing” or becoming more “aggressive”, but rather that more people are becoming susceptible to it by living longer and medical professionals are getting better at recognising and diagnosing it. Treatments are also getting better, but as with any progressive disease the key to effective treatment is early diagnosis.

Again, big strides are being made in this area, but there are several tell-tale signs of dementia which people should read as a signal to seek medical advice. These include:

·         Memory problems affecting everyday life, especially struggling to recall recent events while long-term memory remains good

·         Finding it hard to follow conversations or programmes on TV and radio

·         Losing the thread of what you are saying

·         Forgetting the names of friends or everyday objects

·         Feeling anxious, depressed or angry

·         Having problems with thinking or reasoning

·         Feeling confused in a familiar environment or getting lost even on familiar routes

Hilary Evans, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, stressed that while there is no cure for dementia, treatments are continuing to improve.

“Dementia is not an inevitable part of ageing,” she said. “It is caused by diseases that can be fought through research, and we must bring all our efforts to bear on what is now our greatest medical challenge.

Martina Kane, from the Alzheimer’s Society, added: “It is essential that people have access to the right support and services to help them live well with dementia and that research into better care, treatments and eventually a cure remain high on the agenda.”

One invaluable source of advice and information for people facing dementia, and their families, is the charity Dementia UK. Its website, which you can visit by clicking here, is packed with straightforward information on understanding dementia and the types of support available to help people cope. The charity also operates a free dementia helpline, which you can call on 0800 888 6678.

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