The number of patients with dementia across parts of Europe seems to have stabilised, indicating that fears of a tidal wave of new cases of the disease could be unfounded.

Researchers at Cambridge University comparing data decades apart has found that the proportion of UK citizens aged over 65 with dementia in 2011 was actually one-fifth lower than predicted.

Forecasts in 1991 estimated that 8% of pensioners would have dementia in 2011, but the figure was actually around 6%, which suggests its prevalence is levelling off.

Elsewhere in Europe, data from Spain showed a significant decline in dementia prevalence in men aged 65 and older (about 43%) between 1987 and 1996, while studies in Sweden and the Netherlands show that the age-specific incidence of dementia is falling in these regions.

Lifestyle improvements

Experts believe lifestyle improvements, better healthcare and living conditions are helping to reign in dementia rates, but given that age remains the biggest factor numbers will continue to rise, and the condition will remain a huge healthcare challenge.

“Current trends in risk factors such as obesity and diabetes mean we should not be complacent, but measures to help people adopt healthy lifestyles now could have a real impact on the numbers of people living with dementia in the future,” said Matthew Norton, Head of Policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK.

But “it’s vital that we continue to invest in research into preventions, as well as better treatments and improved diagnosis for those cases that cannot be prevented,” he stressed.

The findings were published in The Lancet.