Understanding Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

woman-face-in-shadowThe word “Alzheimer’s” usually brings to mind an older person. Maybe you are imaging a frail old lady with cotton puffs of white hair on her head, squinting behind glasses, and moving cautiously with hands clasped on a walker. There’s a reason for this stereotype. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 10% of individuals 65 years of age or older have Alzheimer’s (and over 60% are women).

However, despite the fact that advanced age is the number one risk factor for Alzheimer’s, the disease strikes a small percentage of people far earlier. Alzheimer’s can come knocking in their 50s, 40s, and 30s. In this article, we’ll learn more about Early-Onset Alzheimer’s.

What is Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?

Early-onset Alzheimer’s, also known as “younger-onset Alzheimer’s” is exactly what it sounds like. It occurs when Alzheimer’s strikes an individual under the age of 65. Early-onset Alzheimer’s is, thankfully, relatively rare, but it does account for about 5% of all the Alzheimer’s cases in America, which roughly translates into 200,000 people in the United States.

What Causes Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?

Unsurprisingly, a majority of the funds that go into studying and understanding Alzheimer’s focus on how the disease affects older individuals. There are still a lot of mysteries surrounding exactly why certain people begin showing mental decline so early in their lives.

One factor is likely to be genetics. Certain families have shown an increased likelihood of early-onset Alzheimer’s, which implies that a complicated set of genes could be in play. The good news is that if no one in your immediate and extended family has early-onset Alzheimer’s, your chance of getting it is rare.

Do I Have Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?

The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is a tragedy no matter an individual’s age, but it can be especially devastating for someone who is still in the prime of life. Those who develop early-onset Alzheimer’s may still have children at home, could be just reaching the peak of their careers, and might even be caring for an older family member with dementia.

To compound the difficulties is the fact that early-onset Alzheimer’s is often challenging to diagnose. When a 42-year-old visits her doctor complaining of difficulty remembering names and dates, as well as anxiety and moodiness, a doctor will rarely jump to early-onset Alzheimer’s as a possible cause. Many individuals may be told that they are over stressed or even handed prescribed medications to ease anxiety or depression.

As a result, early-onset Alzheimer’s may actually be under-diagnosed and under-reported in our country. Oftentimes, the right diagnosis only comes after multiple visits to different experts and when an individual’s symptoms progress and become more noticeable.

How to Find Out If I Have Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

If you or a member of your family are experiencing noticeable difficulty remembering new names, places, dates, and people; if you have trouble finding the right words; if you sometimes feel confused or are becoming worse and worse at directions, it may be time to visit your doctor. Your symptoms could be the signs of normal aging or stress, but they could also be something more. If you have a family history of Alzheimer’s, especially early-onset Alzheimer’s, it is a good idea to visit a doctor who specializes in Alzheimer’s for a thorough evaluation.

You may be asked to take cognitive tests or undergo a neurological exam or even brain imaging before your doctor can give you a diagnosis.

What Do I Do If I Have Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?

Caring for a person with early-onset Alzheimer’s is not much different than caring for an older individual with Alzheimer’s. Speak with your doctor about current medications available that can help you manage your symptoms and consider enrolling in one of the many Alzheimer’s studies available. Since Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease without a known cure (at least not yet!), you should also consider reviewing or drafting estate planning documents and assigning a durable power of attorney and a healthcare power of attorney.

Additionally, you may want to tell your story and become an Alzheimer’s advocate to help encourage more funding, research, and visibility for this disease that affects 5 million Americans!

Finally, you don’t have to go through early-onset Alzheimer’s alone. If you are caring for a family member with younger-onset Alzheimer’s consider joining our free monthly support group. All caregivers are welcomed to tell their stories, ask questions, and give support to other caregivers.


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