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Researchers have identified a wide range of risk factors for dementia at a young age. The findings challenge the idea that genetics is the sole cause of the condition, laying the groundwork for new prevention strategies.
The large-scale study identified 15 risk factors that are similar to those for late-onset dementia. For the first time, they indicate that it may be possible to reduce the risk of dementia at a young age by targeting health and lifestyle factors.
Relatively little research has been done on young-onset dementia, although there are approximately 370,000 new cases of young-onset dementia worldwide each year.
The new research by the University of Exeter and Maastricht University followed more than 350,000 participants aged under 65 in the UK from the UK Biobank study. The team evaluated a wide range of risk factors, ranging from genetic predispositions to lifestyle and environmental influences. The study is titled ‘Risk factors for dementia in young adulthood in the UK Biobank: A prospective population-based study’ and is published in JAMA Neurology.
The study found that lower formal education, lower socioeconomic status, genetic variation, lifestyle factors such as alcohol use disorder and social isolation, and health problems including vitamin D deficiency, depression, stroke, hearing impairment and heart disease significantly increase the risk of early-onset dementia
Professor David Llewellyn, from the University of Exeter, emphasized the importance of the findings, saying: “This ground-breaking study illustrates the crucial role of international collaboration and big data in advancing our understanding of dementia. There is much more to learn in our ongoing mission to prevent, identify and treat dementia in all its forms in a more targeted manner.”
“This is the largest and most robust study of its kind ever conducted. 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 number of different factors.’
Dr Stevie Hendricks, a researcher at Maastricht University, said: “Dementia at a young age has a very serious impact as affected people usually still have jobs, children and busy lives. The cause is often assumed to be genetic, but for many people we don’t really know exactly what the cause is. That’s why we wanted to investigate other risk factors in this study.”
Sebastian Köhler, professor of neuroepidemiology at Maastricht University, said: “We already know from research on people who develop dementia at an 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 was a surprise to me and may offer opportunities to reduce risk in this group as well.
Dr Janice Ranson, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, said: “Our research breaks new ground in establishing that the risk of dementia at a young age can be reduced. We think this could herald a new era in interventions to reduce new cases of this condition.”
Dr Leah Mursaleen, Head of Clinical Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “We are witnessing a transformation in understanding the risk of dementia and, potentially, how to reduce it both at an individual and societal level. In recent years, there has been a growing consensus that dementia is associated with 12 specific modifiable risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure and hearing loss. It is now believed that up to four in 10 cases of dementia worldwide are linked to these factors.’
“This pioneering study sheds important and much-needed light on the factors that can influence the risk of dementia at a young age. This begins to fill an important gap in our knowledge. It will be important to build on these findings in larger studies.”
Risk factors for dementia in young adulthood in the UK Biobank, JAMA Neurology (2023). DOI: 10.1001/jamaneurol.2023.4929
Archives of Neurology