A BBC report highlights the latest statistics published by the ONS on causes of death. Dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease), is now the leading cause of death, accounting for 11.6% of all deaths in 2015. This has now overtaken coronary heart disease, though for men that still remains the leading cause of death.
For those over 80 years old, dementia is the leading cause of death for both men (13.7%) and women (21.2%). The ONS explain the increase as being “… in part because people are simply living longer but also because of improved detection and diagnosis”.
The statistics underline the importance of extending the scope of proposed right-to-die legislation beyond those who are within 6 months of dying. Dementia is a terminal illness where the time from diagnosis to death averages 7 years. It is a cruel way to die – few people would find it the “good death” they might hope for.
In the early stages, dementia sufferers retain their mental capacity. MDMD campaign for people in the early stages to have the option of an assisted death if that is what they wish, in order to avoid the suffering caused by the later stages as mental capacity ebbs away. Even the best palliative care is unable to relieve the loss of dignity and personal identity that later stage dementia brings, though some sufferers have so little capacity that they are unaware of the true nature of their condition.
We urge politicians, medical professionals, and Dignity in Dying¹ to recognise that some people, quite rationally, do not want their lives to end this way and would much prefer the option of a medically assisted death – even if their life is a little shorter than medically possible. They believe in quality of life, not just quantity of life at any price. These vulnerable, mostly elderly people, who ask for help to die, deserve our compassionate, legalised assistance, provided it is their own, well-considered wish, and they still retain the mental capacity to make the decision.
¹Dignity in Dying “believe everybody has the right to a good death. Including the option of assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults.” Unfortunately DiD interpret “terminally ill” to mean within 6 months of dying – something doctors can not accurately predict. People dying with dementia will generally no longer have sufficient mental capacity by this stage, so the DiD policy will not help people with the most common terminal illness – one which can be very unpleasant in its later stages, and where an assisted death could avoid huge suffering.
MDMD believe it is time for DiD to change their approach in the light of the increase in dementia as a cause of death.