Early-Onset Alzheimer's: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment
Dementia is a general term used to describe symptoms of memory loss, personality changes, and intellectual impairments that are large enough to affect a person's daily life.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. In the United States alone, there is a new case of Alzheimer's disease every 66 seconds. Alzheimer's typically affects people over 65, but early-onset Alzheimer's accounts for 5 percent of cases.
Alzheimer's is not considered a normal part of aging, but age is one of the most prevalent risk factors for the disease.
What is early-onset Alzheimer's?
As the name may suggest, early-onset Alzheimer's occurs when a person shows signs of dementia or Alzheimer's in the earlier stages of their life. Early-onset Alzheimer's is also called young-onset Alzheimer's. The symptoms, however, remain the same.
More than 200,000 people have early-onset Alzheimer's in the U.S. alone.
Early-onset Alzheimer's displays all the same symptoms as Alzheimer's. The rates of progression in Alzheimer's differ from person to person, and it can therefore be difficult to provide a general guide.
Symptoms of Alzheimer's
Forgetting conversations, as well as names and places, may be a symptom of early-stage Alzheimer's.
The early stages of Alzheimer's disease are marked by gaps in memory and mental strength.
This is most noticeable in events such as:
- Forgetting recent conversations
- Misplacing commonly used items
- Forgetting the names of people, places, and objects encountered regularly
- Repetition of the same questions or statements
- Poor judgement or confusion
- Regular indecision
- Mood changes such as anxiety and anger
As Alzheimer's disease progresses, the symptoms can become worse. New symptoms, including obsessiveness, delusions, and increasing confusion, can occur.
In the later stages, more serious symptoms can present themselves. These could include hallucinations and a decline in physical ability.
Because early-onset Alzheimer's is less common than many other disorders, including stress, it can easily be misdiagnosed. This can be frustrating for the person showing symptoms.
Anyone experiencing symptoms should see a doctor who specializes in Alzheimer's treatments. The diagnosis process usually involves cognitive tests and a medical exam. It may also include brain imaging.
The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's disease is age. With early-onset Alzheimer's, age is also a risk factor.
Doctors are not completely certain what causes some people to develop early-onset Alzheimer's while others only show signs after reaching 65 years of age.
Genes and Alzheimer's
There are rare gene traits that may be linked to Alzheimer's. People who inherit these genes tend to show symptoms in their 30s to 50s, and multiple members of the family in multiple generations will show signs of Alzheimer's.
This is known as "familial Alzheimer's disease." If cases of early-onset Alzheimer's seem to run in someone's family, it is a good idea for them to be tested for it as well.
A child with parents who have the familial Alzheimer's gene has a 50 percent chance of developing the disease themselves.
The aluminum link to Alzheimer's
One theory regarding the cause of Alzheimer's disease has been a link involving environmental and ingested aluminum.
While a correlation has repeatedly been found between an ingestion of aluminum and the incidence of Alzheimer's, there is no evidence that aluminum consumption causes Alzheimer's.
In 2009, a long-term study published by the American Journal of Epidemiology studied people aged 65 or older for 15 years.
The research found that cognitive decline was greater in people with a higher exposure to aluminum in their drinking water. The researchers suggested that aluminum from drinking water may be a risk factor for Alzheimer's.
Coping with early-onset Alzheimer's
Coping strategies such as daily reminders on phones and calendars may help people with early-onset Alzheimer's.
It can be difficult to cope with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. As the mind begins to decline, adjusting to new levels of personal ability can pose a challenge.
Accepting personal limitations and implementing coping methods can reduce the stress of early-onset Alzheimer's.
Strategies for coping with daily life include creating a list of things that are becoming harder to do, and then working with others to find ways to easily complete these tasks.
For example, daily reminders can be set into the phone for important tasks.
A specific daily routine can help to reduce the time spent each day figuring out which task is next.
The financial burden of early-onset Alzheimer's
It is important to consider the costs facing the average person with Alzheimer's.
Common costs include:
- Visits to the doctor
- Ongoing medical treatment
- Medical equipment and usage
- Prescription drugs, if necessary
- Personal care products and services
These care costs will depend on where the person lives and how quickly the symptoms of Alzheimer's are progressing.
Coping with early-onset Alzheimer's in the workplace
For many people with early symptoms of Alzheimer's, they can complete their jobs as usual with little to no outside help.
However, it is important to communicate any diagnosis with management and to keep them updated on any progress.
Depending on the rate of progression, a time may come when it is appropriate to consider leaving the workplace.
The effect of early-onset Alzheimer's on relationships
A review in the International Journal of General Medicine indicates that many patients do not receive adequate care following their diagnosis.
As the symptoms worsen, the patient, their family, and their caregivers could experience stress. There may also be embarrassment surrounding the early changes in lifestyle.
Many people try to hide the situation from their family and friends, creating more stress and alienating themselves. It is important to be open and realistic in communication, and to express any needs directly.
In couples where one partner is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, it is equally important to have open conversations about the future of the condition.
Depending on how the disorder progresses, a person with Alzheimer's disease will begin to lose their independence.
This can be stressful for their partner, who may carry a lot of the burden of care. It may therefore be helpful to consider hiring a caregiver for certain tasks, such as paying bills, filling prescriptions, and organizing paperwork.
However difficult it may be, family members should discuss end-of-life issues while the person with Alzheimer's is still able to make informed decisions.
A support group of friends, children, and family can make it easier to cope with the challenges of the disease.