Countries in the Middle East are likely to be at the forefront of a surge in cases of dementia over the next three decades as the region is forced to confront the health implications of its ageing population.
The region will see the fastest growing numbers of people with Alzheimer’s disease in the world because of lifestyle changes allied to growing and ageing populations, according to the study in the Lancet medical journal.
Qatar could see the world's biggest surge with an increase in cases from 2019 to 2050 of 1,926 per cent, followed by the UAE with 1,795 per cent and then Bahrain, which could also see a rise in cases of more than 1,000 per cent, said researchers who forecast dementia rates for 195 countries.
Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan are also among the top 10 nations with the highest likely growth of dementia, with rates of increase above 500 per cent from 2019 levels.
The numbers contribute to a predicted near tripling of the numbers of people aged over 40 living with dementia, from an estimated 57 million in 2019 to 153 million in 2050.
Experts say that such huge increases will put a strain on healthcare systems in the region and families who have traditionally cared for their elderly at home.
Cultural differences and the potential social stigma of identifying relatives with dementia, may have led to underestimates of those with the disease, experts said.
The study identified some 11,711 people living with dementia in 2019, fewer than in Cyprus which has just an eighth of the UAE’s population.
After analysing data including population changes and risk factors including smoking, obesity, high blood sugar and low education, the study concluded that the numbers in the UAE with dementia could top 220,000 by 2050.
The predicted changes are driven in part by health factors including high levels of obesity and diabetes and widespread smoking, said Akshaya Bhagavathula, the Dubai-based associate editor of the New Emirates Medical Journal and a contributor to the study.
“These figures are truly surprising to me,” he said. “Since the UAE national mean age was 33.2 years, it was not expected that the UAE will suffer from premature dementia in the coming 30 years.
“Therefore, this can be a wake-up call to focus on increasing awareness and also reducing the risk factors of dementia in this region.”
The rise is mainly linked to predicted changes to the UAE’s current youthful largely working migrant population where just more than 1 per cent are aged over 65. More than a quarter of Japan’s population, the world’s oldest, are in the same age group.
But the number in the UAE is set to rise sharply over the coming years to some 16 per cent, according to some estimates, with reforms allowing some expatriate workers to remain in the country after retiring.
Across the Middle East and North Africa as a whole, numbers with dementia could rise from nearly 3 million to nearly 14 million, a rise of 367 per cent, the highest for any region in the world, concluded the study that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The authors called for public health campaigns tailored to individual countries and investment in research to tackle dementia, the seventh leading cause of death worldwide. The costs of dementia globally were estimated at more than $1 trillion in 2019.
A paper published in 2020 suggested that up to 40 per cent of cases could be prevented or delayed if exposure to 12 known risk factors were eliminated. They include smoking, depression, physical inactivity, social isolation and air pollution.
Education and healthy lifestyle programmes in high-income nations in the Asia-Pacific region are believed to have had an impact with dementia cases there expected to grow only by 53 per cent.
“Even modest advances in preventing dementia or delaying its progression would pay remarkable dividends,” said the study’s lead author Emma Nichols, from the University of Washington in the US.
“Even modest advances in preventing dementia or delaying its progression would pay remarkable dividends.”
But the “apocalyptic projections” failed to take into account lifestyle changes to limit the onset of dementia, according to two doctors not linked to the study in a separate commentary.
They said that the large number of deaths of older people from Covid-19 worldwide is also likely to reduce future numbers with dementia.
“There is a considerable and urgent need to reinforce a public health approach towards dementia … to delay or avoid these dire projections,” said Dr Michaël Schwarzinger and Dr Carole Dufouil of Bordeaux University Hospital in France.