Too Young to Have Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia? Think Again

Too Young to Have Alzheimer’s Disease or Dementia? Think Again

One of the greatest fears of older adults is developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. While this is a common worry for seniors in their 70s and 80s, especially when they become forgetful, researchers have found that people can begin developing these progressive neurological conditions in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.

Since early symptoms of dementia may not be caught in people younger than 65, this can delay a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

However, the good news is that people can lower their risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s by making health and lifestyle changes, according to health experts.

Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease typically begins after age 65, which is called “late onset.” Early- or young-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s disease begins before age 65. Dementia is a general term for different types of conditions that cause a decline in brain function.

Currently, more than 55 million people have dementia worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). While there are many types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease may contribute to 60-70 percent of dementia cases, according to WHO. For instance, a study conducted by a research team in the Netherlands showed that of those who had early-onset dementia, 55 percent had Alzheimer’s disease.

Early-onset dementia is not as common as late-onset dementia. For example, one study in Norway found that early-onset dementia occurred in 163 out of every 100,000 individuals, which is less than 0.5 percent of the population. However, there is still enough concern about early-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s to warrant research, just as there are studies on late-onset dementia.

Dr. Andrew E. Budson, chief of cognitive & behavioral neurology at the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System and a lecturer in neurology at Harvard Medical School, said there are some differences between early-onset and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In an article for Harvard Health, Dr. Budson wrote that people 65 and older who develop Alzheimer’s disease show a combination of changes in thinking and memory as well as changes that are part of normal aging. As a result, people with late-onset Alzheimer’s have problems with:

    • Working memory—the ability to keep information in one’s head and manipulate it;

    • Episodic memories—the ability to form new memories to remember the recent episodes of one’s life; and

    • Insight—the ability to understand the problems that a person is having.

On the other hand, people with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease have more insight. However, this often brings on depression about their situation and anxiety about their future, Dr. Budson said. Also, the disease progresses more quickly in people with young-onset Alzheimer’s, and this affects them in the prime of life. Because of this, Alzheimer’s tends to disrupt families of people with early-onset disease more than people with late-onset disease.

According to Dr. Budson, some of the most common causes of young-onset memory problems in people under 65 include:

    • Alcohol
    • Anxiety
    • Cannabis
    • Chemotherapy
    • Depression
    • Head injuries
    • Illegal drugs
    • Medication side effects
    • Perimenopause
    • Poor sleep
    • Vitamin deficiencies

Complications from neurological issues such as thyroid disorders and strokes can also cause early-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Budson wrote.

New Study Identifies Risk Factors For Developing Early Dementia

There has not been much research done on young-onset dementia, although there are around 370,000 new young-onset dementia cases diagnosed globally each year, according to researchers who conducted a study on risk factors that contribute to the condition.

“Young-onset dementia has a very serious impact, because the people affected usually still have a job, children, and a busy life,” Dr. Stevie Hendriks, a researcher at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, said in a news release. “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.”

Dr. Hendriks was among researchers from the University of Exeter and Maastricht University who evaluated young-onset dementia. In the study, published in JAMA Neurology, the investigators examined the behaviors of more than 350,000 participants under 65 across the United Kingdom from the UK Biobank study.

The researchers looked at 39 possible risk factors and discovered that the early development of dementia can be influenced by 15 common issues that include:

    • Social isolation
    • Lower formal education
    • Lower socioeconomic status
    • Carrying two copies of the APOE gene (a marker that is Alzheimer’s risk)
    • Vitamin D deficiency
    • Hearing impairment
    • Alcohol use disorder
    • No alcohol use (abstinence)
    • Depression
    • High C-reactive protein levels
    • Lower handgrip strength (physical frailty)
    • Orthostatic hypotension (a form of low blood pressure)
    • Stroke
    • Diabetes
    • Heart disease

Sebastian Köhler, Professor of Neuroepidemiology at Maastricht University, said in a news release, that he was surprised to find that mental health factors, including chronic stress, loneliness, and depression, were evident in young-onset dementia. Knowing this “may offer opportunities to reduce risk in this group too,” he said.

Dr Janice Ranson, a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Exeter in England, said in a news release that their research “breaks new ground in identifying that the risk of young-onset dementia can be reduced. We think this could herald a new era in interventions to reduce new cases of this condition.”

Modifying Risk Factors To Reduce Risk of Early-Onset Dementia

A few of the issues that can trigger young-onset dementia, like genetics and socioeconomic status, cannot be changed, but health experts say other factors can be modified through lifestyle changes.

For example, Dr. Arman Fesharaki-Zadeh, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neurology at the Yale School of Medicine who was not a part of the study, spoke with Yahoo News about three “lifestyle measures” that people may want to consider when trying to lower their risk of early-onset dementia:

Get Regular Physical Activity

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

Maintain a Healthy Diet

Dr. Fesharaki-Zadeh suggests eating nourishing foods, such as a Mediterranean-based diet, which is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids found in foods, such as green leafy vegetables, fruits, vegetables, and olive oil.

Keep Your Mind Sharp

Cognitive, mood, and social stimulation will help your mind stay healthy. Cognitive stimulation can look like learning a new language, attending a seminar, listening to music, or dancing. Mood stimulation can include any activity that reduces stress, such as yoga or practicing mindfulness. Social stimulation can be as simple as talking with people face-to-face.

“In the era of pandemic and now post-pandemic, quality social connections should increasingly be encouraged and practiced,” Dr. Fesharaki-Zadeh told Yahoo News.

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