Dementia now the leading cause of death in Belgium

Dementia now the leading cause of death in Belgium
A person exiting a residential care home. Credit: Belga/ Hatim Kaghat

While dementia has already been the main cause of female deaths in Belgium for almost a decade, it has now become the overall leading cause of death for both men and women for the first time.

People in Belgium are increasingly dying from the effects of dementia, mainly as a result of Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of the illness, mortality figures from Sciensano health institute show. However, the fact it has become the leading cause of death is largely due to the decreasing prominence of other causes.

"The gradual rise of dementia, but especially the strong decrease in the number of deaths from cardiovascular diseases, and recently the decrease in the number of deaths from lung cancer, ensure that dementia is becoming the leading cause of death in Belgium," said Brecht Devleesschauwer, an epidemiologist at Sciensano.

The illness impairs cognitive functions, affecting all aspects of daily life, such as memory, reasoning, orientation and language. This is sometimes accompanied by disorders of emotional control or social behaviour. Besides the patients, the disease also weighs heavily on their families and loved ones, especially as 70% of people suffering from dementia in Belgium are taken care of at home.

Drop in cardiovascular diseases

The deaths from cardiovascular diseases, historically by far the leading cause of death in Belgium, have been falling year on year and were responsible for 9% of all deaths in 2019.

This coincided with the rise of dementia as a leading cause (also 9% of all deaths). Between 2004 and 2019, the number of deaths attributed to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia increased by more than 70%. Experts say the main explanation for the sharp rise in the number of dementia cases lies in the ageing population.

These were followed by stroke and lung cancer, each accounting for about 7% of all deaths. The 2019 ranking differs greatly from figures shared in 2004, when cardiovascular diseases and strokes still accounted for 15% and 10% of all deaths, respectively, and dementia represented just 5% of all deaths.

Gender and location

Sciensano stressed that the national figures hide some key gender differences, as just 6% of men die of dementia. By comparison, the illness has been the leading cause of death among women since 2013. Dementia is more pervasive in Flanders than in the other regions.

Since 2004, mortality rates have decreased significantly in all provinces, but differences between provinces have remained largely constant: West Flanders, Flemish Brabant, and Limburg have the lowest mortality rates; the highest were recorded in the province of Hainaut, followed by Namur and Liège.

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Dementia affects 50 million people worldwide and every year there are nearly 10 million new cases. By 2030, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that the total number of people with dementia is expected to reach 82 million; 152 million, even, by 2050.

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