Alzheimer's Research UK says increased life expectancy means age-related disease is becoming 'our greatest medical challenge'
Deaths from dementia have risen by 52% since 1990 and the disease is now the third most common cause of death in the UK, a study shows.
In 1990 a total of 32,429 deaths from dementia were recorded, but last year the condition accounted for 49,349 deaths, as more Britons live longer than ever before.
The figures led the charity Alzheimer's Research UK to say that, with age the biggest risk factor for developing dementia and life expectancy set to continue to lengthen worldwide, "dementia is increasingly becoming our greatest medical challenge".
In 1990 dementia was the country's fifth biggest cause of death behind heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and pneumonia. But its growing prevalence meant that Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia had become the third most common cause of death by 2013. Heart disease and stroke were still in first and second place, though improvements in healthcare meant fatalities from both had fallen significantly.
Dr James Pickett, head of research and development at the Alzheimer's Society, said better identification of dementia by doctors accounted for the increase, as well as increasing life expectancy. Because dementia is not consistently recorded as a cause of death, last year's total of 49,349 lives lost to it "may even be an understatement", Pickett added.
"With 225,000 people developing dementia every year - the equivalent to one person every three minutes - the condition is one of the biggest health and social care challenges we face."
Alzheimer's comprises about two in three cases of dementia, followed by vascular dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies. The findings are contained in the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, an in-depth look at changing patterns of 240 separate causes of death worldwide in 188 countries during the 23 years between 1990 and 2013, published in The Lancet.
The study shows that life expectancy around the world as a whole rose by 6.2 years - 5.8 years for men and 6.6 years for women - in that period to an average of just under 72 years. The UK has the 17th best life expectancy for men and 24th best for women out of the 188 countries.
The tiny principality of Andorra has the longest life expectancy anywhere for women at 86.7 years, while men in Qatar live longer than anywhere else - 81.2 years. Life expectancy is briefest in Lesotho for both men (45.6 years) and women (51.2 years).
However, life expectancy at birth has increased less in the UK than the global average. For men it rose from 72.9 to 79.1 years but for women only from 78.4 to 82.8 years.
The report highlights some dramatic improvements in health globally, notably falling death rates for conditions such as diarrhoea, measles, TB, malaria and HIV/Aids and among children.
But it also shows that globally deaths from liver cancer caused by hepatitis C have risen by 125%, serious disorders of heart rhythm by 100%, drug use (63%), chronic kidney disease (37%) and diabetes (9%).
"The progress we are seeing against a variety of illnesses and injuries is good, even remarkable, but we can and must do even better," says lead author Dr Christopher Murray, professor of global health at the University of Washington in the USA.
"The huge increase in collective action and funding given to the major infectious diseases such as diarrhoea, measles, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria has had a real impact. However, this study shows that some major chronic diseases have been largely neglected but are rising in importance, particularly drug disorders, liver cirrhosis, diabetes, and chronic kidney disease," Murray added.
This article was amended on 18 December 2014. An earlier version referred to Andorra as a republic, rather than a principality.
225,000 people develop dementia every year - the equivalent to one person every three minutes. Photograph: Daisy-Daisy/Alamy