Early-Onset Alzheimer’s: What You Need to Know

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Alzheimer’s disease is often considered a condition that affects the old. And in many cases that’s true: The National Institutes of Health estimates that nearly a third of people over the age of 85 may have the condition. But that doesn’t mean it can’t strike younger. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which develops in those under the age of 65, affects roughly five percent of all of those with the disease. Read on for crucial info about the condition.

What causes early-onset Alzheimer’s?

Genetics may play a greater role in early-onset cases than in those who develop the condition later in life. Familial Alzheimer’s disease is the term doctors use to describe early-onset Alzheimer’s that results when a person with Alzheimer’s has a parent or sibling who also developed the condition at a young age. In these cases, researchers have been able to pinpoint three genes that may cause the condition to develop. Nearly 70 percent of early-onset cases can be linked to these specific genetic mutations. But for the roughly 30 percent of cases that aren’t caused by genetics, the origins of the condition are just as mysterious as it is for those who develop it after age 65.

Are the symptoms any different?

Not really. As with late-onset Alzheimer’s, symptoms include memory loss, confusion, disorientation, and difficulty completing routine tasks. As the disease progresses, memory lapses and the ability to think and speak clearly will worsen.

How is it diagnosed?

Diagnosing Alzheimer’s in younger people is tricky because it’s usually the last thing a doctor will consider in a generally healthy person in their 40s or 50s (when early-onset symptoms typically begin to show). An accurate diagnosis is often delayed because doctors will want to rule out more likely culprits for memory loss, like chronic stress, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid problems, or other health issues, like heart disease or diabetes. Misdiagnoses are common and can prevent someone from getting proper care as quickly as possible. If the reason for memory loss or changes in behavior remain unexplained, brain scans and memory tests can help doctors determine if a patient has indeed developed Alzheimer’s.

How do you treat it?

Treatment for early-onset Alzheimer’s follows the same course as if it were diagnosed in someone older, which can include medication. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle (eating well and exercising) will remain crucially important in younger age groups as it can help improve symptoms, but the disease will nonetheless still progress.

What should someone who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s prepare for?

While everyone’s experience with the disease is unique—no matter what age they are diagnosed—some research suggests that the disease progresses more quickly in people with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s disease is a difficult condition at any age but can be particularly hard for those who are diagnosed younger while they’re still working and potentially raising a family. People who are still employed when diagnosed will want to pull together a team for their care that includes not only doctors but also lawyers and financial planners, who can help you protect yourself and your family as you navigate the world of disability insurance and long-term care planning.

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