Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, also known as younger-onset Alzheimer’s, is the development of Alzheimer’s symptoms prior to the age of 65. A diagnosis is relatively rare at a younger age, and while over 6 million people in the United States are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the true prevalence of younger-onset is uncertain.
There is no definitive test for Alzheimer’s disease, and health professionals may have conflicting opinions about your loved one’s diagnosis. When a loved one develops Alzheimer’s disease at an early age, it can be easy to dismiss their symptoms as the result of stress or other health conditions, overlooking the severity of cognitive changes that are taking place.
If you recognize significant changes in their behavior, and especially if you know that they may be at risk for developing the disease, it’s crucial to take an active role in advocating for proper testing. Alzheimer’s disease follows seven general stages of progression, and early-onset Alzheimer’s can developed to any stage.
Read on to learn about the causes of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, some potential symptoms, and how the condition is diagnosed and treated.
The Causes of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
Most people with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease develop the more common form, known as sporadic Alzheimer’s. This form of Alzheimer’s isn’t linked to genetics and it’s unknown why it occurs in people under age 65.
Others with early-onset Alzheimer’s are diagnosed with familial Alzheimer’s, which is linked to three specific genes. These people likely have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease developing at an early age. Genetic testing
is available to determine whether someone will develop familial Alzheimer’s, but your loved one may want to consider seeing a genetic counselor before pursuing the option.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Knowing beforehand whether or not you will experience cognitive decline is a personal choice that bears thorough consideration.
Regardless of which form the disease takes, it’s unknown what processes actually lead to a disruption of cognitive function.
Symptoms of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
Symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s do not differ from other forms of the disease. Each person’s experience with the disease is unique, but there are some of the Alzheimer’s symptoms that commonly appear first.
- Short-term memory changes. Short-term memory loss is one of the first signs that many people identify in their loved ones, but initial memory loss typically doesn’t impact long-term memory and may be difficult to notice. Some examples include a loved one forgetting where they placed something that they usually have with them, or forgetting why they entered a room.
- Confusion. Many Alzheimer’s patients report experiencing an unsettling feeling of confusion at certain times. They may not be able to come up with the right words to describe something or have trouble with decision-making.
- Unexpected changes in mood. Changes in mood occur with a variety of conditions, including depression. If your loved one displays a noticeable change in mood or personality without obvious cause, it may be worth a follow-up with their healthcare provider.
- Difficulty maintaining focus. An example might be the inability to finish playing a board game such as chess or checkers. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease can make it difficult to maintain focus and attention for extended periods of time.
There are many other symptoms that could arise from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and it may be helpful to familiarize yourself with this more comprehensive list. While early-onset Alzheimer’s is less common than other forms of the disease, it’s important to pay attention to any changes in your loved one, and address them if they occur.
Diagnosing Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
Since younger-onset Alzheimer’s symptoms are usually unexpected, it can be very challenging to get an accurate diagnosis. This can be a frustrating experience for you and your loved one, as you may need to seek out medical advice from multiple providers arrive at an accurate diagnosis. Medical professionals will have differences of opinion, but doctors will be able to conduct cognitive tests, brain imaging, and use other diagnostic methods to rule out various conditions.
Treating Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
As with all forms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, a cure has not yet been discovered. The goal, particularly with early-onset Alzheimer’s, is to maintain mental and physical functioning for as long as possible. Several medications, such as Donepezil and Memantine, may be useful in some cases to manage specific symptoms. Other components of a treatment plan may include general health and wellness recommendations, such as exercise and cognitive training.
Studies are underway to better understand and improve care for early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important to seek prompt medical advice if you notice any significant changes in a loved one that resemble Alzheimer’s symptoms. With a timely diagnosis, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease can be managed in a way that maximizes your loved one’s quality of life and lets them plan for the future according to their wishes.
Need help caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease? Learn more about Seniorlink’s coaching and support program for caregivers of Medicaid-eligible friends and family members.
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