Researchers have identified a variety of risk factors for early-onset dementia. The findings challenge the assumption that genetics are the sole cause of the condition and lay the groundwork for new prevention strategies.
The large-scale study identified 15 risk factors that resemble those of late-onset dementia. For the first time, they suggest that it might be possible to reduce the risk of early-onset dementia by targeting health and lifestyle factors specifically.
There is relatively little research on early-onset dementia, despite approximately 370,000 new cases occurring worldwide each year.
Published in JAMA Neurology, the new study by the University of Exeter and Maastricht University tracked over 350,000 participants under 65 years old in the United Kingdom as part of the UK Biobank study. The team assessed a wide range of risk factors, ranging from genetic predispositions to lifestyle and environmental influences. The study revealed that lower formal education, lower socioeconomic status, genetic variations, lifestyle factors such as alcohol abuse and social isolation, as well as health issues including vitamin D deficiency, depression, stroke, hearing loss, and heart disease significantly increase the risk of early-onset dementia.
Professor David Llewellyn from the University of Exeter emphasized the importance of the results: „This groundbreaking study highlights the crucial role of international collaboration and Big Data in advancing our understanding of dementia. There is still much to learn in our ongoing mission to prevent, identify, and treat dementia in all its forms. This is the largest and most meaningful study of its kind ever conducted. Excitingly, it shows 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.“
„Early-onset dementia has very profound effects, as the sufferers typically still have a job, children, and a busy life. While it is often assumed to be genetically based, we do not know exactly what the cause is for many people. Therefore, in this study, we also wanted to examine other risk factors,“ said Dr. Stevie Hendriks, a researcher at Maastricht University.
Sebastian Köhler, Professor of Neuroepidemiology at Maastricht University, said, „From research on people who develop dementia in later life, we already knew that there are a number of modifiable risk factors. In addition to physical factors, mental health also plays an important role.“ This includes avoiding chronic stress, loneliness, and depression. It surprised me to see that this is also evident in cases of early-onset dementia and may also offer opportunities for risk reduction in this group.
The study was supported by Alzheimer’s Research UK, the Alan Turing Institute/Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Alzheimer Netherlands, the Gieskes Strijbis Fund, the Medical Research Council, the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration South West Peninsula (PenARC), the National Health and Medical Research Council, the National Institute on Aging, and Alzheimer’s Netherlands.
Dr. Janice Ranson, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, said, „Our research is breaking new ground by finding that the risk of early-onset dementia can be reduced. We believe 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, which co-funded the study, said, „We are experiencing a shift in understanding of the risk of dementia and potentially the opportunities to reduce it both at the individual and societal level. In recent years, there has been an increasing consensus that dementia is associated with twelve specific modifiable risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, and hearing loss. It is now believed that up to four out of ten dementia cases worldwide are associated with these factors.“
„This groundbreaking study sheds important and urgently needed light on factors that can influence the risk of early-onset dementia. Thus, an important knowledge gap begins to close. It will be important to build on these findings in broader studies.“
The complete study is titled „Risks of young-onset dementia in the UK Biobank: A prospective population-based study,“ published in JAMA Neurology.
Hendriks, S., et al. (2023). Risks of young-onset dementia in the UK Biobank. JAMA Neurology. doi.org/10.1001/jamaneurol.2023.4929.