By: Dr. Keith Darrow, PhD, CCC-A

In recent years, the incidence of early-onset dementia has been steadily rising, prompting researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands and the University of Exeter in the U.K. to conduct a groundbreaking study. Published in JAMA Neurology (December 2023), the study challenges the prevailing belief that genetics alone are responsible for this condition. Instead, it identifies 15 factors linked to the development of dementia at a younger age, with some being controllable through lifestyle changes.

In a recent interview, lead researcher Stevie Hendriks, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at Maastricht University, emphasized the significance of the findings. "This study changes our understanding of young-onset dementia, challenging the notion that genetics are the sole cause of the condition and highlighting that a range of risk factors may be important," said Hendriks.

The 15 Risk Factors

Researchers analyzed data from the UK Biobank, involving 356,052 participants aged 65 and younger without a dementia diagnosis. The study, conducted between 2006 and 2010, revealed 15 significant risk factors for young-onset dementia:

1. Lower formal education

2. Lower socioeconomic status

3. Presence of 2 apolipoprotein ε4 allele (APOE ε4)

4. Complete abstinence from alcohol

5. Alcohol use disorder

6. Social isolation

7. Vitamin D deficiency

8. High levels of C-reactive protein

9. Reduced handgrip strength

10. Hearing impairment

11. Orthostatic hypotension

12. Stroke

13. Diabetes

14. Heart disease

15. Depression

Lifestyle Matters

Contrary to the belief that genetics solely dictate the occurrence of young-onset dementia, the study underscores the influence of modifiable factors. Not surprisingly, the medical treatment of hearing loss is on the list (and is covered in great detail in my book, Preventing Decline: The Medical Treatment of Hearing Loss and Tinnitus - available at www.PreventingDecline.com).

Notably, the study highlighted the surprising role of alcohol. "Our analyses showed that both persons with moderate alcohol use and heavy alcohol use had less risk of young-onset dementia compared to persons who did not drink any alcohol," said Hendriks. The phenomenon, termed the 'healthy drinker effect,' remains a subject of speculation, with potential links to overall health.

Understanding Young-Onset Dementia

Young-onset dementia, defined by cognitive decline before age 65, impacts around 370,000 individuals annually. Despite the assumption of a genetic cause, the study aimed to investigate other risk factors. "Young-onset dementia has a very serious impact because the people affected usually still have a job, children, and a busy life," noted Hendriks.

Early diagnosis and support can significantly benefit those with young-onset dementia. The study aims to provide individualized advice on lifestyle and risk factors in the future, particularly for individuals with a genetic predisposition.

By: Dr. Keith Darrow, PhD, CCC-A

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