Mental health determines the risk of developing dementia at a young age

The cause of young-onset dementia is often assumed to be genetic. Researchers from Maastricht University (UM) and the University of Exeter have now identified 15 factors associated with an increased risk of developing dementia at a young age, some of which people can influence themselves. Next to socio-economic status or known lifestyle factors such as alcohol consumption and smoking, the scientists found a strong relationship with mental health. Depression and social isolation – for example because of hearing loss – appear to be particularly good predictors of an increased risk of developing dementia before the age of 65. The findings were recently published in the medical journal JAMA Neurology.

Young-onset dementia

Dementia is receiving increased attention, but relatively little research has been done on young-onset dementia, defined as dementia developing before the age of 65. Globally there are around 370,000 new cases of young-onset dementia each year. Early recognition and appropriate help and support can improve the quality of life of people with young-onset dementia. This was the main reason for UM researcher Dr Stevie Hendriks and her colleagues to look for risk factors that may be related to the disease occurring at a young age. ‘Young-onset dementia has a very serious impact, because the people affected usually still have a job, children and a busy life,’ says Hendriks. ‘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.’

Risk factors

The scientists used data from a long-term cohort study in the United Kingdom, the UK Biobank. They analysed data from more than 350,000 individuals who were closely monitored by British researchers between 2006 and 2021. The data revealed 15 risk factors that, to a greater or lesser extent, appear to be predictors of an increased risk of young-onset dementia. ‘We already knew from research on people who develop dementia at older age that there are a series of modifiable risk factors,’ says Sebastian Köhler, Professor of Neuroepidemiology at Maastricht University. ‘Prevention is now receiving a lot of attention in the Netherlands, for example within the National Dementia Strategy of the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport. 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.’