Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It affects a person's memory, thinking, and behavior. It often progresses to the point where it affects daily activities and functions.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer’s disease most commonly affects older adults, but it can also affect people in their 30s or 40s. When Alzheimer’s disease occurs in someone under the age of 65, it is known as early-onset (or younger-onset) Alzheimer’s disease.
Facts about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease
About 5 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease have the early-onset form, the Alzheimer's Association says. Many of them are in their 40s and 50s when Alzheimer’s disease takes hold.
Types of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease
Most types of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease are the same, but there are a few small distinctions:
Common Alzheimer’s disease. The majority of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease have the common form of Alzheimer’s disease. The disease will progress in roughly the same way as it does in older people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Genetic Alzheimer’s disease. This form is extremely rare. A few hundred people have genes that directly contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. These people begin showing symptoms of the disease in their 30s, 40s, or 50s.
For most people with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms will closely mirror those of other forms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Forgetting important things, particularly newly learned information or important dates
Asking for the same information again and again
Difficulty solving basic problems, such as keeping track of bills or following a favorite recipe
Losing track of the date or time of year
Losing track of where you are and how you got there
Difficulty with depth perception or other vision problems
Difficulty joining conversations or finding the right word for something
Misplacing things and not being able to retrace your steps to find it
Increasingly poor judgment
Withdrawal from work and social situations
Changes in mood and personality
Severe mood swings and behavior changes
Deepening confusion about time, place, and life events
Suspicions about friends, family, or caregivers
Difficulty speaking, swallowing, or walking
Severe memory loss
The current diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease relies on detecting the signs of mental decline noted above. A doctor can then make a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease with a few tests.
First, the doctor will perform a medical history, and also conduct some cognitive tests of memory, problem-solving, and other mental skills. The doctor might also test your blood, urine, and spinal fluid. Finally, CT and MRI scans of the brain can give the doctor a closer look at your brain tissue to reveal the extent of the damage.
In the future, researchers are hoping that studies on biomarkers will allow experts to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease more quickly. Biomarkers are proteins in the body or other types of markers that are a reliable indication of the progress of a disease.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease currently has no cure. But doctors have had some success in helping people maintain mental function, control behavior, and slow the progression of the disease.
The drugs that are used to help people maintain mental function include donepezil (Aricept), rivastigmine (Exelon), galantamine (Razadyne), and memantine (Namenda). The results have been mixed, but these drugs seem to help people with their symptoms for anywhere from a few months to a few years.
Other therapies that may play a role in slowing the progress of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease include physical activity, cardiovascular and diabetes treatments, antioxidants, and cognitive training. A number of studies are ongoing in this area, and researchers are learning new things about Alzheimer’s disease every day.
Experts don’t know how to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, the National Institute on Aging says. Recently, some evidence has shown that detecting the disease early can lead to better treatment options, so it’s best to look for any of the early warning signs mentioned above and see the doctor immediately if you notice them.
Managing early-onset Alzheimer’s disease
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease can be a difficult disease for people to cope with. The best thing you can do is have a positive outlook and stay as active and mentally engaged as possible.
It’s also important to realize that you are not alone. Rely on your friends and family as much as possible. And don’t be afraid to seek out a support group if you feel that it might be helpful to you.
When the disease is still in its early stages, it's critical to think about the future. This can include: doing financial planning, working with employers on current and potential job responsibilities, clarifying health insurance coverage, and getting all your important documents in order should your health take a turn for the worse.
Although Alzheimer’s disease has no cure, you can make the best of a bad situation by focusing on keeping your mind and your body as healthy as possible. This can include eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, cutting down on alcohol, and using relaxation techniques to reduce stress.