Drinking, vitamin D deficiency both linked to early-onset dementia

EXETER, United Kingdom — Drinking, depression, and vitamin D deficiency may all lead to early-onset dementia, a new study warns.

This research, examining 15 risk factors, identified both genetic predispositions and lifestyle and environmental influences that significantly increase the likelihood of early-onset dementia — a condition more commonly associated with older individuals. Other risk factors include stroke, social isolation, hearing loss, and heart disease.

Individuals with early or young-onset dementia develop symptoms between the ages of 30 and 60. The study, which involved over 350,000 British participants, is the most extensive of its kind and challenges the previously held belief that genetics are the sole cause of this debilitating condition. It raises hope that targeting the identified health and lifestyle factors could help prevent the disease in younger people.

Asian woman drinking alcohol at a dining table
(Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels)

Dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form, impairs the ability to remember, think, or make decisions, affecting everyday activities. While it mainly affects older people, it is not a normal part of aging and can impact individuals as young as 30. However, early-onset dementia has been relatively under-researched, despite approximately 370,000 new cases occurring globally each year.

The groundbreaking research, conducted by the University of Exeter and Maastricht University, followed over 350,000 individuals under 65 from the UK Biobank study. It assessed various risk factors, from genetics to lifestyle and environmental influences.

Findings show that lower formal education, lower socioeconomic status, genetic variation, lifestyle factors like alcohol use disorder, and social isolation were linked to early-onset dementia. Additionally, health issues such as vitamin D deficiency, depression, stroke, hearing impairment, and heart disease were found to significantly increase the risk.

Vitamin D foods
(© Leigh Prather – stock.adobe.com)

“This breakthrough study illustrates the crucial role of international collaboration and big data in advancing our understanding of dementia,” says Professor David Llewellyn from the University of Exeter in a media release. “Excitingly, for the first time, it reveals that we may be able to take action to reduce risk of this debilitating condition through targeting a range of different factors.”

The study, supported by ten other institutions, including Alzheimer’s Research UK, is the first to demonstrate links between mental health issues and early-onset dementia.

Young-onset dementia has a very serious impact, because the people affected usually still have a job, children, and a busy life,” says Dr. Stevie Hendriks from Maastricht University. “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.”

The team believes this research could lead to a new era in interventions to reduce new cases of young-onset dementia. They also emphasize the transformation in understanding dementia risk and the potential for reduction at both individual and societal levels.

“This pioneering study shines important and much-needed light on factors that can influence the risk of young-onset dementia,” adds Dr. Leah Mursaleen, Head of Clinical Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “This starts to fill in an important gap in our knowledge. It will be important to build on these findings in broader studies.”

The study is published in JAMA Neurology.

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South West News Service writer James Gamble contributed to this report.

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