From alcohol use to social isolation, poor hearing and heart disease, researchers have identified more than a dozen non-genetic factors that up the risk of dementia for people under 65.
Though about 370,000 new cases a year of young-onset dementia are diagnosed worldwide, it hasn’t been well-researched.
Now, a large study from scientists in the U.K. and the Netherlands suggests that targeting health and lifestyle factors may help lower the risk.
Researchers followed more than 350,000 people under 65 who were part of the U.K. Biobank study.
They found that those with less education, lower economic status, lifestyle factors such as alcohol use disorder and social isolation, and health issues including vitamin D deficiency, depression, stroke, impaired hearing and heart disease had significantly higher odds for a dementia diagnosis.
While particular gene variants did play a role, the findings challenge the idea that genetics alone are to blame.
“This is the largest and most robust study of its kind ever conducted,” said study co-author David Llewellyn, director of research and impact at the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K. “Excitingly, for the first time, it reveals that we may be able to take action to reduce risk of this debilitating condition, through targeting a range of different factors.”
Young-onset dementia exacts a high toll, according to study co-author Stevie Hendriks, a researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.
“The people affected usually still have a job, children and a busy life,” she pointed out in an Exeter news release. “The cause is often assumed to be genetic, but for many people we don’t actually know what the cause is. This is why we also wanted to investigate other risk factors.”
Her Maastricht colleague and co-author Sebastian Köhler pointed out that research on older dementia patients had already uncovered some risk factors.
“In addition to physical factors, mental health also plays an important role, including avoiding chronic stress, loneliness and depression,” said Köhler, an associate professor of psychiatry and neuropsychology. “The fact that this is also evident in young-onset dementia came as a surprise to me, and it may offer opportunities to reduce risk in this group, too.”
The findings were published Dec. 26 in the journal JAMA Neurology.
Funding was provided in part by Alzheimer’s Research UK. Leah Mursaleen, head of clinical research for the organization, said the findings shed much-needed light on factors that can influence young-onset dementia risk.
“In recent years, there’s been a growing consensus that dementia is linked to 12 specific modifiable risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure and hearing loss,” she said. “It’s now accepted that up to four in 10 dementia cases worldwide are linked to these factors.”
Mursaleen said broader studies are now needed to build on these findings.
The Alzheimer’s Society has more about young-onset dementia.
SOURCE: University of Exeter, news release, Dec. 26, 2023
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