Impact of COVID-19 on deaths among people with dementia

Older people living with dementia are particularly vulnerable during infectious disease outbreaks. From the start of the pandemic to 29 July 2022, there have been just under 3,400 deaths due to COVID-19 in residential aged care facilities (DHAC 2022), where it is thought over half of people have dementia (AIHW 2022). 

In addition to being exposed to outbreaks in aged care homes, older people living with dementia are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing severe COVID-19 for several reasons, including that people with dementia often have numerous comorbidities and may have difficulties understanding and following public health recommendations. This makes people with dementia a particularly vulnerable group during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The indirect effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on people with dementia are also substantial, and include accelerated cognitive decline, more severe behavioural and psychological symptoms of dementia, and disruptions in the provision of healthcare and other services.

COVID-19 deaths among people with dementia

The ABS publishes COVID-19 mortality estimates as the pandemic continues to evolve in Australia and worldwide. In late 2021, Australia had its first nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, with the Omicron variant infecting people in all states and territories. 

Between the start of the pandemic and 30 June 2022, there have been just over 7,000 deaths due to COVID-19 registered. Just over two thirds (68%) of these have occurred in 2022 alone.

Out of these, just under 5,400 had a pre-existing condition reported on the death certificate. Of these deaths, 31% had dementia recorded, making it the second most common pre-existing condition after chronic cardiac conditions (38%) (ABS 2022a).

Figure 3.9 Most common pre-existing conditions where COVID-19 was the underlying cause of death

Figure 3.9 shows the most common pre-existing conditions recorded for deaths due to COVID-19 in Australia. 

It is also important to understand where COVID-19 may have contributed to a death, even if it was not the underlying cause. Additional to the 7,000 deaths due to COVID-19, there have been 1,162 deaths which were COVID-19 related. This is where the person either died with COVID-19 or where complications from a previous COVID-19 infection were considered to contribute to the death.  Of these, dementia (including Alzheimer’s) was the cause of death for 20%, making dementia the third most common underlying cause of death among people who died with COVID-19, below cancer (27%) and circulatory system diseases (25%) (ABS 2022a).

Deaths due to dementia during the COVID-19 pandemic

To measure changes in mortality patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery period, the ABS has also been publishing provisional mortality statistics for Australia. These statistics indicate that in 2021:

  • there were 15,450 deaths with an underlying cause of dementia, 13% higher than the average number of deaths due to dementia over the 2015-19 baseline period, and 6% higher than in 2020. This increase is, however, mainly a reflection of Australia’s ageing population
  • once changes in Australia’s population over time are taken into account, the rate of deaths due to dementia was slightly higher (42 deaths per 100,000 people) than the 2015-19 baseline average, as well as the rate in 2020 (both 41 deaths per 100,000 people) (ABS 2022b).

Provisional mortality information will continue to be made available for 2022. Between January and April 2022, there were just over 5,200 deaths due to dementia, which was 21% higher than the baseline average of around 3,200.  For deaths in 2022, the baseline years for comparison are 2017-19 and 2021, rather than 2015-19 and 2021, as has been previously used (ABS 2022c).