An 83-year-old British man has chosen to end his own life at Dignitas in Zurich. He had been suffering from dementia and was thought to be in the early stages of the neurodegenerative disease.

The Dignitas association was established in 1998 and offers anyone who has an incurable or unendurable illness an assisted suicide at their Swiss or German clinics. Approximately 200 British assisted suicides have taken place there since its opening.

Whilst assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, it is a criminal offence in the UK and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years' imprisonment.

This is the first reported case of a British person with dementia who has chosen to end his own life at such a centre. The deceased had the support of his family and was found to have the necessary mental capacity to make the decision at the time.

Currently, dementia affects 800,000 people in the UK, with this figure likely to rise to 1 million within the next decade. The disease leads to loss of memory and an inability to understand what is going on.

Dr Michael Irwin, retired GP and campaigner for assisted suicide, has suggested that there is a stronger case for assisted suicide in patients suffering from dementia than in those suffering with terminal illnesses. He sees the degree of suffering involved with dementia as much higher, as it can often mean a lengthier process as the brain gradually loses its function. Dr Irwin is an advocate for such people being able to make the decision to die at a time of their choosing when they are still mentally competent to be able to do so.

However, others are alarmed by this case, and worry that changes in the law could result in undue pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives to prevent them from being a burden on their families. Dr Peter Saunders, director of Care Not Killing Alliance, said: "This case is hugely alarming and shows that if we were to change the law to allow assisted suicide in this country there would inevitably be further pressure for incremental extension to include dementia patients as is already happening in the Netherlands.”