Risk of suicide almost seven times higher after young onset dementia diagnosis

The risk is highest in the first three months after diagnosis

Saman Javed
Wednesday 05 October 2022 15:05 BST
Jeremy Paxman takes part in dementia ballet class

This risk of someone dying by suicide is almost seven times higher after the diagnosis of young onset dementia, according to a new study.

Experts say the findings suggest that clinics should identify those diagnosed with the condition before the age of 65 and carry out suicide risk assessments.

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

The study, published in the Jama Neurology journal, found that nearly two per cent of people with dementia died from suicide.

The risk was higher during the first three months after a diagnosis, in those who were diagnosed before the age of 65, or if the patient had a known psychiatric illness.

Overall, the risk of dying by suicide within three months of diagnosis before the age of 65 was 6.69 times higher than someone without dementia.

Dr Charles Marshall, senior author of the study and honorary consultant neurologist at the Wolfson Institute of Population Health at Queen Mary, commented: “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 900,000 people currently live with dementia and it is the leading cause of death. Around 42,000 of these people have young onset dementia.

Figures suggest that around 25,000 people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds are affected by dementia. There is currently no known cure for dementia.

Access to a timely and accurate dementia diagnosis is a major priority for the NHS, as it is estimated that only around two thirds of those who suffer from the disease have received a diagnosis.

But experts say the expansion of memory clinics for diagnosing dementia should also be accompanied by additional resources for supporting patients after diagnosis.

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.

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.”

Mitchell said existing services tend to cater to people aged 65 years and over, which means it can be difficult for young people and their families to access 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,” Mitchell added.

“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.”

If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

Additional reporting by PA

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