Dementia has become the leading cause of death for Australian women as its incidence continues to rise.
Almost one in ten people (9.5 per cent) who died in 2019 did so due to dementia, and it was the second-leading cause of death overall, the Dementia in Australia 2021 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found.
AIHW spokesperson Dr. Fleur de Crespigny said dementia was an umbrella term for a range of conditions that impaired brain function over time and it was a growing challenge for Australia.
“It poses a substantial health, aged care and societal challenge and with Australia’s rapidly ageing population, it is predicted to become an even bigger challenge in the future,’ she said.
The report estimated between 386,200 and 472,000 Australians were currently living with dementia. Projections based on the lower figure of 386,200 mean the number of people living with dementia by 2058 will be 849,300.
Almost 30,000 people younger than 65 (an estimated 27,800) are also living with younger onset dementia.
People from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds have an elevated risk of three to five times.
Currently, more than half the people living with dementia reside in aged care.
This led to costs to the government of $1.7 billion for dementia-specific care in residential aged care, with $3 billion in overall spending in 2018-2019.
It also has a huge impact on the estimated 134,900 to 337,200 unpaid carers. Half of them spend more than 60 hours a week on that care and one in three reduced their work hours to accommodate their caring responsibilities.
One out of four said more respite time was needed to support them.
One example cited in the report concerned Carrie, a 42-year-old mother of two, who explained the difficult circumstances they experience due to her husband Dan’s younger onset dementia.
While he is fit and well, the condition affects his behaviour and moods. He is no longer in paid work and cannot drive.
“It doesn’t make any sense to people, they say he’s great,” she said. “But they don’t see that he can go three days without saying a word to me or he hasn’t said my name in six months.”
‘You live with the uncertainty.”
She said explaining the condition to her children, aged 10 and 7, was very difficult. “You try and explain it,” she said. “Their little hearts broke. I’ll never forget it, it was devastating.”
While there is no current cure, there are strategies to manage symptoms, which can help people with dementia maintain independence and quality of life for as long as possible.
Dementia is not inevitable in ageing, the report said. While it increases the risk – one in 12 Australians aged over 65 are living with dementia, and this increases to two in five Australians aged 90 and over – there are risk factors people can avoid.
It is recognised that maintaining vascular health, treating depression, getting sufficient sleep, maintaining social connections, staying at a healthy weight, and avoiding excessive alcohol consumption reduces the risk of developing dementia.
The report found cultural background also impacted the way a person with dementia was cared for. For people with dementia living in the community who were born in non-English speaking countries, more than half rely on care from family and friends only.
This was the case for about 30 per cent of people with dementia living in the community who were born in English-speaking countries.
Dementia Australia chief executive officer Maree McCabe said better data about the experiences of Australians living with dementia, and their carers are essential.
“These can be used to improve policies and support services for those who need them most,” Ms McCabe said.
The report said there was no up-to-date and robust data on dementia diagnoses, or GP and specialist visits for the condition.