The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has recorded a major rise in deaths related to dementia, strokes and old age during the pandemic, prompting concerns over the emotional toll COVID-19 is taking on families and carers.
Data shows that 5,404 people died due to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease between March 13 and May 1, a 52.2% increase compared to the five year average.
The findings follow the news from the Office of National Statistics that dementia is a main underlying condition for COVID-19 deaths.
In the same period, deaths related to “symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions”, which are mostly deaths certified as caused by old age or frailty, rose by 77.8% to 1,567.
Paul Edwards, director of Clinical Services at Dementia UK, described the statistics as “harrowing” and said they point to a need to “urgently address” the situation for people diagnosed with dementia, their families and those caring for them.
“High mortality rates amongst people with dementia were evident even before the pandemic. Now we are seeing a truly heart-breaking situation where people with dementia and their carers are facing intolerable outcomes brought on by an inability to see close family members, a lack of testing in care settings inflaming infection rates further as well as a lack of support for health and social care staff,” he said.
“For too long we have seen things in isolation; the health care system distant from social care; people with dementia as anonymous statistics; and a failure to see the emotional toll of dementia and coronavirus on families and the workforce.”
Fiona Carragher, director of Policy and Influencing at Alzheimer’s Society said: “We already knew people with dementia have been worst hit by the virus, accounting for a quarter of all the deaths we’ve seen.
“But this 52% increase in excess deaths of people with dementia during the pandemic is staggering. It is the largest surge in deaths of any health condition.
“We suspect isolation, fewer visitors, the resulting onset of depression, as well as interruption to health services are contributing, but there is surely also underreporting of Covid-19 deaths.”
The ONS said possible explanations for the rise in deaths could be undiagnosed or unrecorded COVID-19; reduced hospital capacity; an increase in registration efficiency leading to more deaths being registered; and an increase in stress due to lockdown.
But it also acknowledged that a “reluctance to seek care” or a “delay in receiving care” could have caused deaths in people with serious health conditions.
Last month, the president of ADASS warned of a rising number of deaths among people who receive care at home, as they cancel their visits out of fear they will catch coronavirus.
James Bullion told the Health and Social Care Committee that he feared that the number of deaths could “mirror” those occurring in care homes as the crisis continues.
He said ADASS members have seen around 10% of service users stopping their home care visits to try and protect themselves from infection, but this could have serious health risks and consequences in itself.
“Delayed care could result from a reluctance to seek health care because of anxiety about exposure to COVID-19 or burdening the healthcare system, or it could result from overstretching of the healthcare system,” the ONS said.
“These could result in an increase in deaths from causes that can be quickly fatal without treatment if earlier symptoms are not treated. Such causes include ischaemic heart disease and other forms of circulatory disease, stroke, sepsis, meningitis, appendicitis, asthma and diabetes.”
The ONS said stroke deaths registered at home were 52.52% higher than the five year average during the coronavirus pandemic.
The peak of these excess deaths occurred on the week ending April 3, when over twice as many stroke deaths occurred compared to the five year average.
In care homes, stroke-related deaths were 38.55% higher than the five year average.
Juliet Bouverie, chief executive of the Stroke Association said: “We hear daily from people affected by stroke about how the pandemic is affecting their lives, but these figures show that the virus’s impact reaches much further.
“We’ve heard concerns from many about accessing usual health services at this time. Whether through concerns about being a burden on the NHS, or fear of contracting coronavirus – many report delaying seeking emergency help. Our message is clear – the health service is still here for you, and we know NHS staff are working hard to increase the safety of patients during this period.
“We are only just getting an emerging picture of how the coronavirus is impacting people affected by stroke, at home, in care and in hospital. Whilst more data in coming months will help us to understand more fully how coronavirus is affecting lives, it’s becoming clear that the virus is taking a huge toll on those affected by stroke.”
In April, concerns were mounting that people across the UK who are having a stroke were not calling 999 amid the coronavirus pandemic.
With stroke striking every five minutes, the Stroke Association warned that thousands of people could be at risk of severe disability, or even stroke-related death, if they don’t seek urgent help.