Science

‘Suicide risk almost seven times higher after young onset dementia diagnosis'

Researchers say their findings indicate clinics should target suicide risk assessment at patients diagnosed before the age of 65.

The risk of someone taking their own life is almost seven times higher after diagnosis of young onset dementia, a new study suggests.

Researchers say their findings indicate clinics should target suicide risk assessment to patients who are diagnosed with the condition before the age of 65.

Early recognition and a timely accurate diagnosis of dementia, combined with specialist support, are important factors in reducing the distress caused by a young onset diagnosis, they add.

Queen Mary University of London and University of Nottingham scientists looked at medical records of some 594,674 people from 2001 to 2019 to determine if there was a link between dementia diagnosis and suicide risk.

They found that nearly 2% of patients with a dementia diagnosis died from suicide.

According to the study, patients were at a high risk of suicide after a dementia diagnosis if aged under 65, during the first three months after a diagnosis, or if they had known psychiatric illness.

It found that in patients younger than 65 years and within three months of diagnosis, suicide risk was 6.69 times higher than in patients without dementia.

Dr Charles Marshall, senior author and clinical senior lecturer and honorary consultant neurologist at the Wolfson Institute of Population Health at Queen Mary, said: “Improving access to a dementia diagnosis is an important healthcare priority.

“However, a dementia diagnosis can be devastating, and our work shows that we also need to ensure that services have the resources to provide appropriate support after a diagnosis is given.”

In the UK, around 850,000 people currently live with dementia and it is the leading cause of death.

Around 42,000 of these people have young onset dementia.

Only around two-thirds of those living with dementia have received a diagnosis, and improving access to a timely and accurate dementia diagnosis is a major NHS priority.

But experts say the expansion of memory clinics for diagnosing dementia has not always been accompanied by additional resources for supporting patients in the difficult period after diagnosis.

Dr Danah Alothman, lead author and researcher at the University of Nottingham, said: “These findings suggest that memory clinics should particularly target suicide risk assessment to patients with young onset dementia, patients in the first few months after dementia diagnosis and patients already known to have psychiatric problems.”

The findings are published in the Jama Neurology journal.

Dr Susan Mitchell, head of policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “While this study paints a mixed picture about the impact of dementia and suicide risk, it’s worrying to see that those under 65 living with a dementia diagnosis are at an increased risk of suicide.

“As dementia is often associated with older people, there is a profound level of stigma attached to young onset dementia, and the process of getting a diagnosis can be frustrating and incredibly isolating.

“Many services tend to be geared towards people aged 65 years and over, meaning it can be very difficult for younger people and their families to access a timely diagnosis and appropriate support.

“This, when combined with the fact that there are no treatments available in the UK that can slow or stop the progression of the underlying diseases that cause dementia, can be devastating to bear.

“Findings like this underpin the need for vital progress in developing new treatments, something that all of us working in dementia research are desperate to see.”