New study says hypertension is an early predictor of developing dementia before 65.

According to the U.S.-based Alzheimer’s Association, nearly 4 percent of the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s have young-onset dementia — an estimated 200,000 people. Many are in their 40s and 50s, have families, careers or are even caregivers themselves. Since health care providers generally don’t look for Alzheimer’s disease in younger people, getting an accurate diagnosis of early onset can be a long and frustrating process. Symptoms may be incorrectly attributed to stress or there may be conflicting diagnoses from different health care professionals. The earliest symptoms include memory lapses, such a forgetting familiar words or the location of everyday objects.

One Swedish study led by Peter Nordstrom, Ph.D., of Sweden’s Umea University, says hypertension in late adolescence increases the likelihood of developing dementia in middle age. Even after accounting for whether a person had a stroke, high blood pressure still increased the risk of developing dementia before the age of 65, which is defined as young-onset dementia (YOD).

Commenting on the study in an article published in JAMA’s Internal Medicine journal, Dr. Deborah Levine, University of Michigan assistant professor of medicine, says that “the finding that high systolic blood pressure in late adolescence is associated with an increased risk of young-onset dementia, if confirmed, provides a potential target for intervention studies to prevent young-onset dementia and possibly late-onset dementia.”

In her article, “Young-Onset Dementia, Unanswered Questions and Unmet Needs,” Levine cautions that the Nordstrom study does not prove that having hypertension causes YOD or that treating it will prevent YOD. It does imply that rather than being unavoidable, young-onset dementia – and even late-onset dementia – may be preventable by for example, avoiding head trauma, drugs, alcohol abuse, and detecting and treating hypertensive adolescents and young adults.

Unfortunately, Levine says, “young-onset dementia causes major health, social, and financial problems for patients and their families.” She says that adults with YOD often become unable to parent young children or hold a job and frequently lose health insurance. Moreover, although they have high caregiving needs, many lack access to health care and adult caregivers. She stresses that is essential to improve care and access to long-term services for these adults and their families who “really need our help.”

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