Researchers identify 15 risk factors for early-onset dementia
Contrary to popular belief, genetics may not be the only cause of young-onset dementia. A team of researchers has identified a number of environmental and lifestyle factors that may increase the risk of developing this disease, which occurs before the age of 65.
Picture: fizkes / Shutterstock©
“The findings challenge the notion that genetics are the sole cause of the condition, laying the groundwork for new prevention strategies.” These are the words used by a team led by researchers from the Universities of Exeter (England) and Maastricht (Netherlands) to present the results of their research.
The findings highlight no fewer than 15 factors that could increase the risk of young-onset dementia, which, according to nursing charity Dementia UK, often first manifests in changes in personality, depression or anxiety, language and social functioning.
“Young-onset dementia has a very serious impact, because the people affected usually still have a job, children, and a busy life,” noted Dr Stevie Hendriks, Researcher at Maastricht University, one of the researchers on the team.
And as Dementia UK outlines, “while initially, a person with young-onset dementia may be able to continue to work, it may become more challenging as their condition progresses. This may eventually lead to them ending their working life earlier than planned”.
The organisation estimates that 7.5% of the people living with dementia in the UK suffer from young-onset, with symptoms starting before the age of 65, and emphasizes that a “prompt diagnosis means support can be put in place to help the person live as well as possible with the condition”.
The researchers working on this new study did not set out to assess the burden of early-onset dementia, but to identify risk factors, other than genetics, that may be involved in the development of the disease.
This large-scale study was based on data from 356,052 participants aged under 65 who were followed for the UK Biobank, a large-scale biomedical database and research resource containing information on the genetics, lifestyle and health of half a million Britons. Published in the journal JAMA Neurology, their research highlights 15 factors that can significantly increase the risk of early-onset dementia.
Loneliness, alcohol, depression
Genetic predisposition is indeed a risk factor, but it is not the only cause of early-onset dementia. Researchers also point to alcohol use disorders, social isolation, lower formal education, lower socio-economic status, vitamin D deficiency, depression, stroke, hearing impairment, diabetes and heart disease.
“This is the largest and most robust study of its kind ever conducted. 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,” explained Professor David Llewellyn, of the University of Exeter, in a press release.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 55 million people worldwide live with some form of dementia, with up to 9% of cases identified as early-onset dementia. The health authority already recommends reducing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia through regular physical activity, smoking cessation, reduced alcohol consumption and a healthy, balanced diet.
But this new research could help professionals go even further in rolling out prevention strategies on a large scale.
“We’re witnessing a transformation in understanding of dementia risk and, potentially, how to reduce it on both an individual and societal level. 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. It’s now accepted that up to four in 10 dementia cases worldwide are linked to these factors,” said Dr Leah Mursaleen, Head of Clinical Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK.
She concluded: “This pioneering study shines important and much-needed light on factors that can influence the risk of young-onset dementia. This starts to fill in an important gap in our knowledge. It will be important to build on these findings in broader studies.”