Protect yourself from young-onset dementia

If you’re under 65, you may not think you have to worry about dementia just yet. Unfortunately, that’s simply not true.

Roughly, 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have dementia. This “young-onset dementia” (YOD) represents up to 10 percent of all dementia cases. And that percentage is on the rise.

Now, here’s the good news…

Researchers have uncovered nine clear risk factors that increase YOD risk. And many of them are factors you can control.

For this new analysis, researchers looked at 488,484 Swedish men who began military service in the late 1960s (at around 18 years of age).

Nearly 40 years later, 487 men were diagnosed with dementia.

Researchers found that young men with two or more risk factors at the study’s outset were 20 times more likely to develop YOD in their 50s.

There aren’t many risk factors that give you a 20-fold increased risk for any disease. Most dietary and “lifestyle” risk factors for chronic diseases fall in the range of a two-fold increased risk. If even that much.

So what are the risk factors?

Alcohol abuse topped this list. It was the single strongest risk factor for developing YOD.

In descending order, the other risk factors were: stroke, antipsychotic drug use, depression, father’s family history of dementia, recreational drug intoxication, low cognitive function, short stature, and high blood pressure.

Now, some may look at this list and worry.

But you can control several of these risk factors yourself.

First off, don’t abuse alcohol.

Now, I’m not talking cutting out one to two glasses of wine a night. This represents light-to-moderate drinking. In fact, as you’ll recall, most experts recognize that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption is associated with better health.

But anything above two to three drinks on a daily basis and you could be playing with fire. They always told us in Drivers’ Ed classes that alcohol destroys brain cells. And it seems that, above a certain threshold, they were right.

The same holds true for recreational drug abuse. As Nancy Reagan advised, “Just Say No.”  I will address how this all relates to legalizing marijuana in a future issue.

And last but certainly not least among the YOD factors within your control is high blood pressure. As I always report, high blood pressure is a serious threat to your physical and mental health. And you should always do what you can to keep it under control.

Now, let’s look at the other risk factors–starting with antipsychotic drugs. These drugs make a chemical mess of your brain. So I’m not surprised using them resulted in an increased YOD risk.

The next question is whether anti-depressant drugs do the same thing to people who suffer from depression. This is a real concern, since few depressed patients escape the doctor’s office without a prescription.

The link between YOD and low cognitive function also didn’t come as much of a surprise. Just think about it…if you have low cognitive function at age 18 (as the men did in this study), you are more likely have low cognitive function in your 50s as well.

Short stature as a YOD risk factor is not so obvious. But it makes for an interesting observation.

In the 1980s, I performed research for my Ph.D. dissertation at the National Institutes of Health. I made some interesting discoveries about short-statured men and women in relatively well-nourished populations like the U.S. and Sweden. About half of them are short because their parents are short. But about half of them are short because of nutritional deficits during childhood.

This helps explain why someone who’s short may have a greater tendency to develop YOD. They didn’t receive proper nourishment in their younger years. It led to stunted physical development. And perhaps it led to poor cognitive and neurological development as well. Come to think of it, this also ties into the association between low cognitive function at age 18 and increased YOD risk.

I would like to see more research into these nine risk factors. Perhaps one day we will find that they apply to men and women who develop dementia after 65 as well. As always, I’ll keep you updated as the new science emerges.


1. “Risk Factors in Late Adolescence for Young-Onset Dementia in Men,” JAMA Intern Med; published online August 12, 2013