Original Mind Body Green article available HERE.

By 2050, researchers expect 115 million people will be living with dementia around the world. In the U.S., the CDC expects to see the sharpest increases in cases among Black and Latino Americans. And while dementia risk increases with age, youth doesn’t always offer protection. Young onset dementia (YOD), or dementia that appears before age 65, currently affects at least 3.9 million people around the world.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association3 examined over 500,000 participants to identify risk factors tied to young onset dementia. Here’s what they found.

The good news? Researchers think genetic factors explain only 5-10% of YOD cases. Lifestyle factors make up much more of the equation, which is to say, there are things we can do now to help lower your risk of developing dementia later on.

Researchers used data from the UK biobank, an ongoing prospective cohort study, but limited their investigation to participants who were under 65 and free of dementia at the start. They followed up with each participant when they turned 65 to see if they had developed dementia, and ran statistical analysis to look for relationships between lifestyle factors and whether they got dementia.

Four modifiable lifestyle factors emerged that were associated with a higher risk of YOD:

Social isolation

We’ve long reported on how central social connection is to good health (and conversely, the health risks associated with loneliness) so it’s no surprise to see social isolation pop up in this study. Researchers found that seeing family and friends more than once a month was protective against early dementia. On the other hand, those who socialized once a month or less were at an increased risk of early dementia.

+ What to do:

Severe vitamin D deficiency

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Participants with severe vitamin D deficiency (defined as a blood level less than 10 ng/mL) had a higher risk of YOD. This makes sense given previous research that linked those same levels to a 50% higher risk of dementia (that is, general dementia as opposed to young onset dementia).

The good news? Previous research shows that older adults who took vitamin D supplements had a 40% lower dementia incidence rate. And getting enough vitamin D pays off in other ways too.

As endocrinologist Brittany Henderson, M.D., previously told mindbodygreen, “[30 ng/mL] is the bare minimum level to avoid major issues known to occur with vitamin D deficiency, including bone issues and poor thyroid health…Higher levels of serum 25(OH)D have consistently been associated with improvements in mood, enhancement of the immune system, and more.”

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Grip strength

Researchers looked for a relationship between physical frailty and dementia by measuring hand grip strength, a well-known predictor of cognitive decline. Those who had above-average grip strength had a lower risk of YOD than those with lower levels of grip strength. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to strengthen the grip, from opening jars to doing kettlebell swings.

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Alcohol use

Here’s where things got a bit less straightforward. Participants with a diagnosed alcohol use disorder had a higher risk of YOD. But when it came to more moderate levels of alcohol use, drinkers appeared to fare better than those who abstained. Researchers noted the moderate and even heavy drinking was associated with a lower risk of YOD compared to those who drank no alcohol.

That said, other research has linked alcohol to an increased risk of dementia, not to mention other diseases, so it’s probably not wise to take these findings as carte blanche to drink excessively. When you do drink, we recommend sticking to low-sugar options and doing so earlier in the day to minimize the impact on your sleep.

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It’s worth noting that researchers also found less modifiable risk factors that increased the likelihood of developing YOD in this study, such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and depression. Adopting these four habits may be even more important and beneficial for people who have any of these preexisting conditions.