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Epidemiology and risk factors of dementia
  1. W M van der Flier,
  2. P Scheltens
  1. Department of Neurology and Alzheimer Center, Vrije Universiteit Medical Center, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to:
 W M van der Flier
 Department of Neurology and Alzheimer Center, Vrije Universiteit Medical Center, PO Box 7057, 1007 MB Amsterdam, The Netherlands;

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Dementia refers to a syndrome that is characterised by progressive deterioration of cognitive functions. Neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as apathy, agitation, and depression, are also common. With increasing loss of function, a patient is gradually robbed of his or her independence. Eventually, placement in a nursing home may be necessary. Patients with dementia usually survive 7—10 years after onset of symptoms. Dementia places a tremendous burden not only on caregivers, but also on society, and has already been established as one of the major challenges of this century.1

Epidemiology refers to the medical science that studies frequencies of disease.2 Measures of frequency that are often used in epidemiology are prevalence and incidence. The concept of prevalence refers to the number of patients with a disease at a certain moment in time, whereas measures of incidence reflect the number of new cases over time. Although important for health care planners, the knowledge of frequency of disease in itself is not the goal of epidemiology. Rather, the aim is to gain insight into the mechanisms that cause disease, eventually to be able to cure or prevent disease. Therefore, frequencies are studied in relation to determinants, or risk factors. Although marked as “the epidemic of our century”, still surprisingly little is known about the epidemiology of dementia. In this chapter, a brief overview will be given of the epidemiology and risk factors of dementia. Furthermore, we comment on some specific methodological problems associated with studies in dementia.


The syndrome of dementia may be caused by various underlying diseases, each characterised by a specific constellation of signs and symptoms in combination with a presumed underlying substrate of neuropathology (fig 1). Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most prevalent cause of dementia. It is a neurodegenerative disorder, generally assumed to be caused by neuritic plaques …

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