The investigators saw stark contrasts in the numbers, too. Mortality rates were highest in the eastern south-central region, including in Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. In this region, 274 people out of every 100,000 among those older than 65 died from Alzheimer's. The rate in the mid-Atlantic region was 86 per 100,000.
The study didn't delve into the reasons for these disparities. There are probably multiple factors, says Kulshreshtha, including less access to primary and specialist medical care and more chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease — all of which are highly prevalent in the rural areas in the South and which increase the risk of Alzheimer's.
The good news is that people can reduce their risk of these contributing illnesses, thereby also reducing their risk of Alzheimer's disease, Kulshreshtha says. “My main message is that we need to pay attention to prevention. Healthy eating habits and an active lifestyle reduce the risk for many diseases, including Alzheimer's."
AARP's Global Council on Brain Health has released several science-based reports that look at the impact various lifestyle factors, such as blood pressure, sleep and socialization, have on brain health. More information on these reports, including tips for keeping your brain healthy, is available on the group's website.
3. Younger cases add to increasing numbers
While older age is the largest risk factor for dementia, younger people can also develop these diseases, says Stevie Hendriks, a graduate student at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who also presented her findings at the Alzheimer's conference. She and her colleagues reviewed 50 studies (42 were included in the meta analysis) and found that about 10 of every 100,000 people younger than 65 will develop some form of dementia each year. This translates to about 350,000 younger-age onset cases worldwide every year.
Unfortunately, she tells AARP, that number is probably a vast underestimate: “In our study, we didn't have a lot of information on the incidence in Africa, Asia and some other low-income countries. So, we believe this incidence of young people with dementia might even be higher."
The biggest increase among this younger population will be in Alzheimer's cases, Hendriks says. She also projected increases in vascular dementia, which is largely related to cardiovascular disease, and frontotemporal dementia, a group of uncommon disorders affecting the frontal or the temporal lobes of the brain — the seat of personality and thought.
Younger-onset dementias are particularly difficult to diagnose, Hendriks notes, “because physicians don't necessarily think ‘dementia’ when they see symptoms in a relatively young person.” Symptoms in younger people can also be very different from those in older people.
"Going without a diagnosis can be really hard, because many patients have a lot of personality changes. They can become aggressive or very, very angry, losing their jobs and losing relationships with partners and children,” says Hendriks, who hopes her research raises awareness and improves the diagnostic process in younger adults with dementia.
Latest research raises need for prevention efforts, treatments
The studies highlight the pressing need for effective preventive strategies and for treatments that will slow disease progression, says Maria Carrillo, chief science officer of the Alzheimer's Association.
"Without effective treatments to stop, slow or prevent Alzheimer's and all dementia, these numbers will continue to grow beyond 2050 and continue to impact individuals, caregivers, health systems and governments globally,” she says in a news release.
"In addition to therapeutics, it's critical to uncover culturally tailored interventions that reduce dementia risk through lifestyle factors like education, diet and exercise."