Annual cost of UK brain disorders estimated as £113 billion

A new report estimates that disorders of the brain – including dementia, stroke and mental health issues – cost the UK almost £113 billion per year, more than the GDP of New Zealand. The figure includes direct medical costs and indirect costs, such as lost production due to work absence or early retirement.

The research, led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, University of Hertfordshire and Imperial College London, is the most recent and comprehensive study conducted on the costs and prevalence of brain disorders in the UK.

Professor Barbara Sahakian, one of the lead researchers from the University of Cambridge and President of the British Association for Psychopharmacology, said: "Given the ageing population, the prevalence and cost of UK brain disorders is likely to continue to increase, adding additional pressure on the NHS and social services, particularly in regard to the cost of institutionalised care."

The study reveals that in 2010, the year for which the most recent data are available, there were approximately 45 million diagnoses of brain disorders in the UK. Among these were 8.2 million cases of anxiety disorder, almost 5.3 million cases of sleep disorder, more than 1 million cases of addiction and almost 4 million cases of mood disorders, including bipolar.

Also in 2010, there were 26,000 cases of brain tumour and 18 million cases of headache requiring medical attention. Around one in 20 of the 45 million cases were illnesses that could not be attributed to a physical problem.

The researchers consider their estimate of £113 billion in total cost to the UK for brain disorders to be conservative because limitations in the data for some disorders meant they could not be included.

Indirect costs associated with productivity losses were by far the largest component of the total cost at more than £52 billion, comprising almost half of the overall cost. The remainder of the cost was divided into a quarter each for direct non-medical care (£30 billion) and direct healthcare (£30 billion).

Dementia was the most expensive disorder, costing the UK almost £19 billion in 2010. Previous studies have shown that although dementia is estimated to have the lowest direct health care costs, the combined annual cost of health and social care, informal care and productivity losses is estimated at almost twice the bill for cancer, three times the costs for heart disease and four times the costs for stroke.

Professor David Nutt, a lead author of the report, and Edmond J Safra, Chair in Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, said: "Clinical and economic challenges posed by brain disorders require coordinated effort at an EU and national level to transform the current scientific, healthcare and educational agenda. Diseases need to be ranked according to their economic burden to help more efficiently allocate current and future research funds."

The researchers argue that brain disorders involve disproportionally high indirect costs, such as lost production owing to work absence or early retirement, and relatively low direct health and social care costs. This means that better treatments could have the potential to considerably reduce the overall economic burden to society and improve patient quality of life, over and above any reductions in healthcare costs. They believe this is a clear argument for investing in research that leads to a better understanding of how to most effectively prevent, diagnose, treat and manage brain diseases.

Professor Sahakian added: "No group of chronic diseases costs the world more than brain disorders, with one-third of the adult population suffering from a mental disorder every year. However, although brain disorders affect more people than cancer and cardiovascular disease, they receive significantly less in research funding."

The scientists also highlight an impending crisis in drug development: many major pharmaceutical companies have withdrawn from key areas of preclinical and clinical neuroscience research.

Cynthia Joyce, Chief Executive of MQ: Transforming Mental Health (a new charity to support research into the global issues in mental health), said: "One in four people are affected by mental health problems - meaning nearly every family in the UK is dealing with the financial and/or emotional impact of mental illness.

"It is important to know that unlike most health disorders in our society, the rates of ill health and mortality among those with mental illness are actually growing, making mental illness a true public health emergency. There is every need for a major movement to support funding more research into mental health problems and the development of better and more cost-effective treatments."

Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, said: "The UK has an excellent research base in brain sciences and mental health disorders. However, these are challenging research areas and we need to continue attracting innovative scientists from across all sectors to drive the discovery agenda and find better treatments for these costly disorders."

The study was supported by the British Association for Psychopharmacology, the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology, the European Brain Council and the Wellcome Trust and is published today in the 'Journal of Psychopharmacology'.