Research finds disease now leading cause of death in British women; many are also carers before succumbing themselves.


An MRI scan of a human brain. Women over 60 are now twice as likely to get dementia as breast cancer. Photograph: Alamy


Women are bearing the brunt of the dementia epidemic that is spreading through Britain. A study by Alzheimer’s Research UK reveals that the condition has not only become the leading cause of death among British women but that women are far more likely to end up as carers of sufferers than men – suffering physical and emotional stress and job losses in the process.

“Women are carrying the responsibility of care for their loved ones, only later to be living with the condition,” states the report, entitled Women and Dementia: A Marginalised Majority. “Women are dying from dementia but not before it has taken a considerable toll on minds and bodies. In the UK, dementia hits women the hardest.”

The study, to be published next month, calls for the government to make a significant increase in its funding of dementia research and an improved investment in care. It also reveals that:

In addition, the report notes that many women play a leading role in dementia research in the UK but, in common with other branches of science, they are discouraged from staying on in academia. Thus the country loses, every year, some of the best talent that it possesses for tackling the illness.

“Dementia is a life-shattering condition and represents a ‘triple whammy’ for women,” said Hilary Evans, director of external affairs at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “More women are dying of dementia, more women are having to bear the burden of care, while a disproportionate number of women currently working in dementia research are having to leave science.”

Dementia has become increasingly common, partly because more people, particularly women, are living longer. Age is a major risk factor for the condition, and so it is now more prevalent, especially among women.

But there are other reasons why dementia has overtaken heart disease and cancer as the most common cause of death in women (though it remains in third place for men). For a start, there have been major investments in heart disease and cancer research in recent years and these have helped bring down death rates, said Matthew Norton, head of policy for Alzheimer’s Research UK.

“Just look at the figures,” he said. “The total UK spend – from charities and the government – on dementia in 2013 was £73.8m. By contrast, for cancer, that figure was £503m. And we can now see the effect this gulf in funding has on disease profiles in Britain.”

This point was also emphasised by Evans. “In recent decades we’ve seen increased investment in areas like cancer have a real impact, and we need to emulate that success for dementia. Only through research can we find ways to treat and prevent dementia, and transform the lives of the hundreds of thousands affected.”

The report also finds that between 60% and 70% of carers – who support dementia patients unpaid – are female and many frequently report finding the experience emotionally stressful.

In addition, the study reveals that women who care for dementia sufferers also feel less supported than their male counterparts. “Wives caring for their husbands with severe dementia reported receiving less support from friends and family than husbands caring for their wives in similar circumstances,” says the report.

In turn, these female carers were more likely to be depressed, which is itself a risk factor for dementia. Of those women caring for dementia patients, 20% said they had been forced to go from full- to part-time work; 18% had to take leave of absence, while 19% said they had to give up work altogether to look after a relative or partner.

The report concludes that the grim situation regarding dementia and dementia care in Britain will get worse unless the government acts. “The UK already has a larger proportion of people over 65 than the EU average, and as the number of older people rises steeply, the need for carers will continue to increase,” it warns.


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