Study Reveals The Biggest Risk Factors For Getting Early Dementia

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A recent study by the University of Exeter and Maastricht University published in JAMA Neurology has identified some of the factors that can lead to early cases of dementia ― some of which may surprise you.

The data analyzed the behaviors of over 350,000 participants younger than 65 across the United Kingdom to evaluate young-onset dementia, which occurs before age 65. The researchers found there are 15 common issues that can contribute to the early development of the condition. A few have to do with genetics and other elements outside our control, but many others are modifiable.

The study is meaningful to experts because it “looks at young-onset dementia risk factors in a way that has only been done in late-onset dementias previously,” according to Dr. Kevin Bickart, an assistant professor in neurology at the University of California Los Angeles Health’s David Geffen School of Medicine. The study features “a very large sample that was prospectively followed from healthy baseline to a dementia diagnosis with lots of data collection.”

Here’s what to know:

The biggest risk factors for young-onset dementia:

The large-scale study looked at 39 possible risk factors and determined that 15 of them made the biggest difference when it came to developing dementia before the age of 65. Those include:

  1. Social isolation
  2. Lower formal education
  3. Lower socioeconomic status
  4. Carrying two copies of the APOE gene (a marker that influences Alzheimer’s risk)
  5. Vitamin D deficiency
  6. Hearing impairment
  7. Alcohol use disorder
  8. No alcohol use (abstinence)
  9. Depression
  10. High C-reactive protein levels
  11. Lower handgrip strength (physical frailty)
  12. Orthostatic hypotension (a form of low blood pressure)
  13. Stroke
  14. Diabetes
  15. Heart disease

Although some recognized risks are out of many people’s control ― like being a carrier of the APOE gene or your socioeconomic status ― others can be managed through lifestyle changes.

What you can do to lower your risk of early-onset dementia.

Overall, the study results are consistent with what medical experts have been advising patients for years.

Dr. Arman Fesharaki-Zadeh, an assistant professor of psychiatry and of neurology at the Yale School of Medicine, recommended three “lifestyle measures” that folks may want to consider when trying to lower their risk of young-onset dementia ― starting with physical exercise.

“An active daily exercise practice can have far-reaching benefits, which include enhanced neurocognitive function,” Fesharaki-Zadeh said, adding that physical activity can boost neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons and synapses), vasculogenesis (the creation of new blood vessels) while also providing inherent mood benefits.

Next, focus on eating nourishing foods. Fesharaki-Zadeh championed a Mediterranean-based diet, mentioning its well-documented benefits.

“Such dietary practice, which includes food groups such as green leafy vegetables, olive oil, salmon and blueberries, is rich in vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, as well as antioxidants ― all neuroprotective factors,” he explained.

Fesharaki-Zadeh recommended cognitive, mood and social stimulation to keep your mind sharp.

For cognitive stimulation, this could look like learning a new language or attending a seminar, listening to music or dancing. Basically, anything that engages your mind will help it stay healthy. Mood stimulation, on the other hand, relates to stress reduction practices, “such as mindfulness and yoga,” Fesharaki-Zadeh said.

As for social stimulation, it’s pretty simple: Try to connect with other humans face-to-face and actually talk to them as much as possible. “In the era of pandemic and now post-pandemic, quality social connections should increasingly be encouraged and practiced,” Fesharaki-Zadeh said.

While these habits don’t cover the whole list of dementia risk factors, they are a pretty solid start.

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