Major study identifies 15 factors associated with risk of early-onset dementia: ScienceAlert

Major study identifies 15 factors associated with risk of early-onset dementia: ScienceAlert

While dementia is more common among older people, hundreds of thousands of people are diagnosed with early-onset dementia (YOD) every year – and a new large-scale study sheds some new light on why.

Most previous research in this area has looked at genetics passed down through generations, but here, the team was able to identify 15 different lifestyle and health factors associated with YOD risk.

“This is the largest and most powerful study of its kind ever conducted,” says epidemiologist David Llewellyn of the University of Exeter in the UK.

“Excitingly, it reveals for the first time that we may be able to take action to reduce the risk of this debilitating condition, by targeting a range of different factors.”

The research team analyzed data collected on 356,052 people under the age of 65 in the United Kingdom. Low socioeconomic status, social isolation, hearing impairment, stroke, diabetes, heart disease, and depression were associated with an increased risk of YOD.

Vitamin D deficiency and high levels of C-reactive protein (which the liver produces in response to inflammation) also mean a higher risk, as does having two ApoE4 ε4 gene variants (a genetic scenario already linked to Alzheimer’s disease).

Researchers describe the relationship between alcohol and YOD as “complex.” While alcohol use increased risk, moderate to heavy drinking was associated with lower risk – perhaps because people in this second group tend to be healthier overall (keep in mind that those who abstain from alcohol often do so for reasons medical).

Higher levels of formal education and lower physical frailty (measured by higher handgrip strength) were also associated with lower risk of YOD. All of this helps fill some knowledge gaps about YOD.

“We already knew from research on people who develop dementia at older ages that there are a series of modifiable risk factors,” says neuroepidemiologist Sebastian Kohler of Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

“In addition to physical factors, mental health also plays an important role, including avoiding chronic stress, loneliness, and depression.”

While the results do not prove that dementia is caused by these factors, they help build a more detailed picture. As is always the case in this type of research, knowing more about the causes can help develop better treatments and preventive measures.

Many of these factors are modifiable, providing more hope for those working to find ways to overcome dementia rather than just manage it. Ultimately, dementia may be something we can reduce our risk of by living healthier lives.

“Dementia in young people has a very serious impact, because affected people usually have work, children and busy lives,” says neuroscientist Steffi Hendricks, from Maastricht University.

“The cause is often assumed to be genetic, but for many people we don’t know exactly what the cause is. That’s why we also wanted to investigate other risk factors in this study.”

The research was published in JAMA Neuroscience.

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