While it’s most often associated with old people, Alzheimer’s disease can affect people in their 30s or 40s. Almost 5% of the 5 million people in the United States who suffer from this disease have early onset Alzheimer’s. Learn more about this form of the condition and whether you’re at risk.
What Is Early Onset Alzheimer’s?
When symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease appear before the age of 65, the condition is known as early onset Alzheimer’s. By then, people who receive the diagnosis can be in the early, middle, or late stages of the disease.
Most cases are sporadic Alzheimer’s, which is not linked to genes and cannot be passed from parents to children. So far, doctors have not figured out what causes sporadic Alzheimer’s at a young age. A person’s lifestyle and environment can play a factor, but the exact causes remain for now unknown.
Very few people diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s have familial Alzheimer’s disease. This form of the condition is transferred from parents or grandparents to children or grandchildren. Often, it is initially misdiagnosed for depression or associated with stress or menopause.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease can be categorized into two different types.
Common Alzheimer’s Disease
This is the more prevalent type of early-onset Alzheimer’s. It progresses at the same speed as Alzheimer’s disease progresses in older people.
Genetic (Familial) Alzheimer’s Disease
This is a very rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s. It is caused by genes that are directly transferred from one generation to the next.
Scientists have discovered several rare deterministic genes that can trigger the disease anytime in one’s life. It is estimated that only 1% or less of all patients of Alzheimer’s have this form.
What Causes Early Onset Alzheimer\’s Disease?
While the exact cause of early onset Alzheimer’s has not been determined yet, certain gene mutations have been linked with this condition. But not all patients who have early-onset Alzheimer’s possess these genes. This means there are some other causative agents as well that have not been identified so far.
Scientists have discovered three genes that seem to play a role in the early development of the disease. If one of your parents develops Alzheimer’s and carries a mutated gene, then there are chances that you may have inherited the gene from them. That increases the probability that you will develop Alzheimer’s before you reach old age.
These three genes are:
- Presenilin 1 (PSEN1)
- Presenilin 2 (PSEN2)
- Amyloid-beta precursor protein (APP)
How Do These Genes Cause Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?
According to current theories, mutations in these genes cause the formation of fragments of a protein (beta-amyloid) into clusters or plaque. As more plaque forms in the brain, it affects communication between nerve cells. Eventually, it leads to their death.
These genes also disturb the functioning of another essential protein called tau. Strands of this protein become tangled and cause hindrance in the transfer of nutrients to the brain cells, leading to brain cell death.
Genetic testing for these genes may help doctors in diagnosing early onset Alzheimer’s faster. If one of your parents or grandparents developed early onset Alzheimer’s, or if there are several cases in your extended family, you may want to consider genetic testing.
However, it’s important to remember that there is currently no cure for the condition. Knowing you have these gene mutations will not necessarily improve treatment options.
Research continues around the world to determine what exactly causes early onset Alzheimer’s and how it may be prevented. For now, however, the best solution is to live a healthy and active life.
How Is Early Onset Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?
Your doctor can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease by investigating signs suggesting a decrease in your cognitive performance. Your doctor will check your family history and then perform some cognitive tests related to mental abilities and skills. He or she may also conduct urine, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid tests.
To make diagnosis easier, your doctor may ask for a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Computed Tomography (CT) scans of your brain. These scans cannot directly diagnose the condition, but they can provide a better understanding of the extent of brain damage. You can find out more about how Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed here.
An early onset Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis can affect your life in significant ways. It can disturb family life, cause job loss, and affect your interpersonal relationships.
But if you see a doctor early, you can live a near-normal and fulfilling life for years with the support of your family and friends.
Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Symptoms
Knowing the early symptoms can help you better understand whether you should be concerned or not. Most of these symptoms are associated with slower brain functioning and can affect your everyday life in small ways. Here are some of the warning signs.
Difficulties Maintaining a Conversation
Starting a conversation may not feel difficult, but keeping the conversation going may prove challenging. You may stop in the middle of a sentence and fail to complete it. The other person may find that you are often at a loss for words.
Losing Items More Often
You may place an object in one place and then forget its location. Misplacing items here and there may become common. You may ask others about where they placed an item even though you were the last one who used it.
Being Forgetful About Time and Place
You may arrive at a place and then forget why you went there. You may lose track of time and dates and ask those around you to repeat the date several times a day.
Having Difficulties Concentrating
Tasks you used to complete easily may now seem hard to do now. You may start doing a task and then suddenly forget why you were doing it or how to continue. While coming back home from the office, you may forget your way.
You may notice that you cannot remember the birthdays of your loved ones anymore. Or you may forget the date of a special occasion. Or to pay bills before their due date.
Difficulty in Problem Solving
You may find it hard to find solutions to basic problems. Even calculating bills may seem hard. The difficulties you experience increase as the complexity of the task increases.
Personality and Mood Swings
People around you may notice sudden personality and mood changes. You may feel disturbed if something unfamiliar happens. Fearfulness, confusion, and anxiety may become common.
Treatment of Early Onset Alzheimer’s
There is currently no cure for early onset Alzheimer’s. But some treatments may reduce the severity of the symptoms in the early stage of the condition. Doctors prescribe medications such as:
Physical activity, cognitive training, a regular intake of antioxidants, and cardiovascular treatment may also prove beneficial.
Life After Diagnosis
Finding out that you have early onset Alzheimer’s disease can affect many aspects of your life. The best way to cope with a diagnosis is to stay positive and start planning your future before the disease progresses. You will also want to talk to your employer to explore all your professional options.
Your friends and family can provide invaluable support if you let them understand your situation and tell them you may need their help. With a healthy lifestyle and the support of those around you, you can rise above this disease.