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Forecasting dementia in 2050 and counting the cost

Marcus Butler

8 March 2016: By 2050, the number of Australians with dementia is expected to more than double, according to researchers at the University of Canberra who are working to deliver the most up-to-date and reliable data for future planning.

Existing data estimates 380,000 people living with dementia in Australia, but researchers with the University’s National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM) at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis (IGPA), say that by 2050, the number will rise to almost one million.

NATSEM has participated in the Dementia Collaborative Research Centre (Early Diagnosis and Prevention) initiative to create the current model based on population growth, ageing and tracking risk factors for dementia in the population.

Deputy director of IGPA and convenor of NATSEM, Professor Laurie Brown said producing a reliable and robust estimate is vitally important for governments, health and aged care providers and numerous other industries.

“Dementia presents a significant burden of illness in the Australian community and it is accompanied by high social and economic costs. It is something that governments should be planning for already and setting those plans in motion,” Professor Brown said.

“The burden of care most often falls on family members, with elderly partners or adult children taking on the role of primary care-giver. With one in five Australians being aged 65 or older by 2050, the impact of dementia on informal carers will be immense.

“The scale of the situation we see with these projections is probably enough to shock people into action; but that’s not why we developed this demographic projection. Ensuring decision makers and service providers have advance notice ensures that we are on the best path to providing care for the people who will need it, and that it’s paid for by a broad base of society.”

NATSEM’s data also contributes to understanding where these one million Australians with dementia will live and what their living-circumstances will look like in 2050.

“It is important to know where people are likely to be living, so we can inform everything from urban planning for age friendly towns and cities to the construction of new aged care facilities and support for families involved in caring for older relatives with dementia.”

Professor Brown said that most people would think that producing an estimate such as the number of Australians likely to have dementia in 30 years’ time would be a relatively simple calculation.

"This is in fact quite challenging. Being able to produce this kind of projection involves a significant number of variables to take into consideration before coming to a reliable figure. We have to appreciate the natural limitations of the raw data and we must be clear on the assumptions that go into the modelling.

“It is far more complicated than just saying one in 10 people over 65 have dementia today and extrapolating that out to cover the expected Australian population by the middle of the century,” she said.

“While dementia prevalence has a strong relationship with age and gender, there are many lifestyle factors that affect a person’s risk  in late life. We have to understand how the prevalence of dementia is affected by these risk and protective factors, from education level to obesity, or smoking status for example and how these factors are likely to change in the population over time.”

NATSEM projections and Professor Brown’s work will continue to feed back into government policy-making and the public discussion around Australia’s ageing population and the demands that will be placed on the aged care system in the future.