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2nd Generation Dementia Patients Diagnosed Earlier Than Parents

A new study reveals that people with dementia whose parents also had dementia tend to develop symptoms an average of six years earlier than their parents.

Factors such as education, blood pressure and carrying the genetic variant APOE4, which increases the risk of dementia, accounted for less than a third of the variation in the age at onset; meaning that more than two-thirds remains to be explained.

“It’s important to know who is going to get dementia, but it’s also important to know when symptoms will develop,” said first author Gregory Day, M.D., an assistant professor of neurology and an investigator at the Charles F. and Joanne Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“If we can better understand the factors that delay or accelerate the age at onset, we eventually could get to the point where we collect this information at a doctor’s visit, put it through our calculator, and determine an expected age at onset for any adult child of a person with dementia.”

The study is published online in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, affecting an estimated 5.8 million people in the United States. Between 10% and 15% of the children of Alzheimer’s patients go on to develop symptoms of the disease themselves.

The research team evaluated dementia patients who were participating in studies at the Knight ADRC. They identified 164 people with dementia who had at least one parent who had been diagnosed with dementia.

Using medical records and interviews with participants and friends or family members, the researchers determined the age at onset of dementia for each participant and his or her parent or parents.

Participants with one parent with dementia developed symptoms an average of 6.1 years earlier than the parent had. If both parents had dementia, the age at onset was 13 years earlier than the average of the parents’ ages at diagnosis.

Although changes over the past few decades in diagnostic criteria and social attitudes toward cognitive decline in later life partially explain why the participants were diagnosed at younger ages than their parents, but other factors were likely at play as well.

“Nowadays there’s less of a tendency to brush off confusion and forgetfulness as signs of getting older,” Day said.

“People who watched their parents decline with Alzheimer’s disease are especially unlikely to dismiss such concerns. What’s most interesting, I think, is that people with two parents with dementia developed the disease much younger than people with one parent. That suggests that it’s more than just changes in diagnostic criteria or social attitudes.”

“People with two parents with dementia may have a double dose of genetic or other risk factors that pushes them toward a younger age at onset.”

As part of this study, the researchers analyzed a large set of known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. They studied heritable factors such as ethnicity, race, genetic variants and which parent had the disease.

They also factored in education, body mass index, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, blood cholesterol level, depression, tobacco use, excessive alcohol use, and histories of traumatic brain injury.

All of the factors together only accounted for 29% of the variability, meaning that most of what influences the age of dementia onset remains to be identified.

Intriguingly, the team found that people who were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at unexpectedly younger or older ages than their parents were more likely than people diagnosed at the expected age to have certain mutations in Alzheimer’s genes. But it wasn’t clear what effect these mutations have.

“These people are really interesting. We don’t know why their symptoms began earlier or later than expected,” Day said.

“There were no other risk factors we could identify,” he said. “We started this project looking for factors that we could target to give people more time before they start experiencing dementia. Although we’re not yet at the point where we can modify people’s genes, we can begin to explore how these genes may accelerate or slow down the onset of dementia in these individuals.”

Source: Washington University School of Medicine

2nd Generation Dementia Patients Diagnosed Earlier Than Parents

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2019). 2nd Generation Dementia Patients Diagnosed Earlier Than Parents. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 4 Nov 2019 (Originally: 3 Nov 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 4 Nov 2019
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