Early onset Alzheimer’s is a difficult concept to grapple with, because most associate this disease with old age. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a type of dementia that is most common among people older than age 65. Dementia is a progressive neurodegenerative disease wherein brain neural pathways and connections are damaged persistently and continuously, and Alzheimer’s is a common form of dementia. Early onset Alzheimer’s, however, is less common.
Alzheimer’s patients may suffer gradual memory loss, communication problems, depression, poor judgment, confusion, and loss of normal function like incontinence or inability to drive. These problems are progressive until the patient’s demise. Alzheimer’s disease has a devastating impact at any age because it reduces the patient’s quality of life, but there may be unique challenges for early onset Alzheimer’s patients.
Because symptoms appear in a younger person who is supposed to be living a dynamic life, others may question or disbelieve the diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. A memory-robbing illness could also impact work performance, resulting in job loss and financial difficulties. It also puts a strain on relationships, especially for those with a new spouse or those planning to have kids. Early onset Alzheimer’s makes it impossible for a young person to thrive or enjoy their youth, because it is a major cause of disability and dependency. There are also worries that this early onset Alzheimer’s variant could be genetic. Learn more about this debilitating brain disease below.
How Early Does Early Onset Alzheimer’s Occur?
The National Institute of Health says that early onset Alzheimer’s is diagnosed if dementia symptoms set in before age 65. Another term for this is young-onset AD because it lives up to its name by developing atypically in younger people.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia categorized by plaque formation in the brain, which affects normal cognitive and neural function of people over 65. Experts suspect that plaques and tangles of certain proteins damage and kill nerves in the brain.
Notably, every human being will develop plaques and tangles as they age, which is why older folks tend to forget details of their younger years. However, people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease develop a lot more of these plaques and tangles. They also target the brain’s memory areas while spreading to other regions as time goes by, making AD symptoms more severe.
Early onset Alzheimer’s disease symptoms could begin as early as 30 years of age, but it is quite rare. Data shows that only 5% to 6% of people with Alzheimer’s disease experience symptoms before age 65, making early onset Alzheimer’s a rare condition.
Typical Signs and Symptoms of Early Onset Alzheimer’s
Both early onset Alzheimer’s and late-onset AD exhibit roughly the same symptoms. In the early stages, signs of the disease begin to show with memory lapses. Eventually, over time, brain function worsens and affects functioning and daily life. Symptoms to watch for are the following:
- Inability to recognize people
- Trouble with words
- Poor language skills
- Inability to perform normal tasks like walking and swallowing
- Visual issues like poor spatial distance
- Getting lost
- Personality changes
- Depression and anxiety
- Inability to do familiar tasks like driving, balancing a checkbook, and cooking
- Trouble with usual household activities
Patients will start with small memory gaps and brain problem functions. This will progressively get worse with time and affect their ability to manage daily life. The life expectancy of patients with early onset Alzheimer’s is currently unknown due to how rare this condition is and how very few studies have been conducted. However, the life expectancy for an individual with late-onset AD is between 8 to 12 years, and specialists can only surmise that it may be the same for young onset.
Early Onset Azlhiemer’s Disease Diagnosis and Treatment
No single test will conclude if you have this disease. Your physician will use a combination of techniques which may include any of the following:
- Ask about family history
- Do memory tests and problem-solving tests
- Imaging tests like CT scans, MRI, or PET scans
- Precivity AD tests to check for proteins in the blood
- Gene testing for changes in genes linked to early onset AD
Getting an accurate diagnosis is very important to rule out other potential causes of symptoms, which may be treatable. While there is no treatment to completely cure both early onset and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, doctors can manage symptoms. It is important to stay positive and do calming activities like deep breathing and yoga. Eating healthy food to fuel the body and exercise shall promote optimal wellness.
Some doctors may also prescribe drugs such as sleeping pills and antidepressants to treat issues that come with AD like sleep disorders, anxiety, and night terrors. Memory loss drugs may be given since these could delay symptoms and promote improvement for many months to years. This may buy patients and their family time to sort out work obligations, finances, and other personal affairs. It is vital to make critical legal decisions while the patient is still lucid.
This diagnosis will also help an early onset AD patient and their family address any concerns with appropriate and supportive measures. Partners may also need counseling and other coping therapies because this neurologic illness impacts a patient’s daily functioning, so they may have to eventually switch from being an active lover and partner to a caregiver.
Causes of Early Onset Alzheimer's Disease
People with young onset Alzheimer’s are rare but most cases are familial in nature and could have a genetic link. When disease symptoms appear between 30 to 65 years of age, it could be hereditary as the onset could be triggered by genetic mutations. Genes control every cell in the human body so they determine physical traits and disease risks. Hence, the presence of gene variants could make you more susceptible to early onset Alzheimer’s disease. A single mutation in any of these three genes, namely, APP, PSEN1, or PSEN2, could increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s before 65.
This means if you have a parent or grandparent with an early onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, there could be changes in one or more of these three genes. And these gene changes could potentially be passed on from generation to generation. In most cases of young onset AD, this is most likely due to faulty inherited genetic codes.
It is crucial to understand that family history doesn’t necessarily mean that you will undoubtedly develop early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Seeking genetic testing and counseling can help if you observe a pattern in your family. For example, CircleDNA, which tests whole-genome sequences from the comforts of your home, is an at-home DNA test that provides health brain reports explaining potential risks of Alzheimer’s and other issues like Parkinson’s Disease, Frontotemporal Dementia, Bipolar Disorder, and more based on your DNA. Learning about any genetic risk factors is helpful, as you can be more intentional with your preventative measures.
Furthermore, this at-home DNA test from CircleDNA will also provide comprehensive nutritional reports and exercise plans that fit your DNA profile. Certain lifestyle changes like diet, more physical movement, stress reduction, and abstaining from substances could help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It is also vital to note that early diagnosis and treatment could slow down the disease’s progression.
If Alzheimer’s disease runs in your family, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll get the disease, even if you carry genetic markers. Healthy lifestyle changes could help prevent the disease from developing.
- What are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease? (NIH) https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-are-signs-alzheimers-disease
- Young-onset Alzheimer’s disease: When symptoms begin before 65 (Mayo Clinic) https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/in-depth/alzheimers/art-20048356
- Alzheimer’s genes: Are you at risk? (Mayo Clinic) https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/in-depth/alzheimers-genes/art-20046552
- Gene mutations associated with early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease in China: An overview and current status (Qi Qin et.al.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7549583/