Covid-19 has dropped out of the top five leading causes of death in England and Wales for the first time since the start of the pandemic, figures show.
Coronavirus was recorded as the main cause of death for 22,454 people in 2022, or 3.9% of all deaths registered, making it the sixth leading cause overall.
In both 2020 and 2021 Covid-19 was the leading cause of death, with 73,766 deaths (12.1% of the total) and 67,350 (11.5%) respectively.
By contrast, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease was the leading cause in England and Wales in 2022, with 65,967 deaths registered (11.4% of the total), up from 61,250 (10.4%) in 2021.
The other causes in the top five were ischaemic heart diseases (59,356 deaths and 10.3% of the total); chronic lower respiratory diseases (29,815 deaths, 5.2%); cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes and aneurysms (29,274 deaths, 5.1%); and trachea, bronchus and lung cancer (28,571 deaths, 5.0%).
The figures have been published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Covid-19 levels among the population of England and Wales reached record highs last year, as new variants of the virus saw the estimated number of weekly infections hit 3.9 million in early January and 4.4 million at the end of March.
The fact that 2022 saw a fall in Covid-19 deaths, not a rise, reflects the success of the vaccination programme, which has reduced sharply the number of infected people who go on to become seriously ill or die.
Vaccines were first rolled out across the country in early 2021, with booster doses subsequently made available to older and vulnerable groups.
Sarah Caul, ONS head of mortality analysis, said the figures represent a “significant change” in the leading causes of death since the beginning of the pandemic.
“For the third year in a row, we’ve seen more males than females dying, a reversal of the trend since the 1980s,” she added.
Some 292,064 male deaths were registered in England and Wales last year, compared with 285,096 female deaths.
The leading cause of death in males was ischaemic heart disease, with dementia and Alzheimer’s the leading cause in females.
This is “probably due to females living longer on average than males,” Ms Caul said.
Samantha Benham-Hermetz, director of policy and public affairs at the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK, described the figures as “a stark reminder of the terrible and far-reaching effects of dementia on our society.”
She continued: “Our most recent survey showed that two in 10 people are unaware that dementia is even a cause of death, yet last year it claimed nearly 66,000 lives in England and Wales alone.
“Despite its devastating impact, and in contrast with other leading causes of death like heart disease or cancer, there are still no treatments available on the NHS that can slow or stop it.
“As the impact of the pandemic recedes, we must learn from the lessons of Covid-19 and speed up progress in finding new ways to treat, diagnose and prevent dementia.”
When the data for 2022 is broken down by age and sex, Covid-19 was the third leading cause of death among males aged 80 and over – but this is the only group in which the virus appeared in the top five.
The overall number of deaths registered last year in England and Wales (577,160) was lower than in 2021 (586,334) and 2020 (607,922).
However the total was 6.2% above the five-year average, with 33,747 “excess” or extra deaths.
High levels of excess deaths have been recorded in all three years of the pandemic, but Covid-19 is likely to have played only a minor role in the figures for 2022.
Health experts have suggested that other factors contributing to last year’s excess deaths could include seasonal viruses such as flu, the impact of the summer heatwave, pressures on the NHS, and access to medical services.