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12-28-2023

Early-onset dementia can actually be prevented through lifestyle choices

Researchers have made a significant leap in understanding the risk factors of early-onset dementia. Traditionally, genetics have been viewed as the primary culprit behind this condition.

However, recent findings are challenging this belief, opening doors to innovative prevention strategies.

The extensive research, a collaborative effort by the University of Exeter and Maastricht University, involved more than 350,000 participants under the age of 65 from the UK Biobank study.

This study is unique in its scale and depth, examining a wide range of factors from genetics to lifestyle and environmental influences.

Key discoveries on early-onset dementia

The study identified 15 risk factors for early-onset dementia, mirroring those for late-onset dementia. This overlap suggests that it may be feasible to mitigate the risk of young-onset dementia by focusing on health and lifestyle factors.

Despite the commonality of these risk factors, the research into early-onset dementia remains relatively sparse, with about 370,000 new cases globally each year.

Among the risk factors identified, the study highlights lower formal education, socioeconomic status, genetic variations, lifestyle choices like alcohol use and social isolation, and health issues including vitamin D deficiency, depression, stroke, hearing impairment, and heart disease.

Scientific insights

Professor David Llewellyn from the University of Exeter underlines the significance of these findings. He remarks.

“This study marks a major advancement in our comprehension of dementia. The collaboration and use of big data have been pivotal. While we continue to unravel dementia’s complexities, this study opens promising avenues for prevention and more targeted treatment strategies,” Llewellyn said.

Dr. Stevie Hendriks from Maastricht University points out the profound impact of early-onset dementia, especially since it affects people in the prime of their lives.

Hendriks explained, “Young-onset dementia has a very serious impact, because the people affected usually still have a job, children, and a busy life. The cause is often assumed to be genetic, but for many people we don’t actually know exactly what the cause is. This is why we also wanted to investigate other risk factors in this study.”

Echoing this sentiment, Professor Sebastian Köhler, a Neuroepidemiology expert at Maastricht University, expresses his surprise at the similarities in risk factors between early and late-onset dementia.

He notes, “We already knew from research on people who develop dementia at older age that there are a series of modifiable risk factors. In addition to physical factors, mental health also plays an important role, including avoiding chronic stress, loneliness and depression. 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.”

Preventing early-onset dementia

This research received support from various esteemed organizations, including Alzheimer’s Research UK, The Alan Turing Institute, Alzheimer Nederland, and several others. This wide-ranging support underscores the study’s importance in the field of dementia research.

Dr. Janice Ranson, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, believes this research marks the beginning of a new era in reducing the incidence of young-onset dementia.

“Our research breaks new ground in identifying that the risk of early-onset dementia can be reduced. We think this could herald a new era in interventions to reduce new cases of this condition,” Ranson expounded.

Understanding early-onset dementia risks

Similarly, Dr. Leah Mursaleen, Head of Clinical Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, highlights the transformative nature of this study in understanding dementia risk.

She stresses the importance of building upon these findings to further our knowledge in this area.

“We’re witnessing a transformation in understanding of dementia risk and, potentially, how to reduce it on both an individual and societal level,” said Mursaleen.

“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.”

In summary, this study challenges existing notions about the causative factors of early-onset dementia while also highlighting the potential for intervention and prevention.

By broadening our understanding of risk factors, this research paves the way for new strategies to combat this debilitating condition, offering hope to many affected individuals and their families.

The full study was published in the journal JAMA Neurology.

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