Early-Onset Alzheimer’s: What Causes It, And What Are Some Early Symptoms?

A diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s is rare, but when it does happen, the news is shocking and devastating. Because it is so rare for adults under age 65 to experience any kind of cognitive decline, early-onset Alzheimer’s is often misdiagnosed. Read on to learn more about the symptoms and causes of this disease.

About Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

Via Bradley Gordon
Via Bradley Gordon

Approximately 95 percent of people with Alzheimer’s first develop symptoms at age 65 or over. Of the remaining 5 percent, most first have symptoms in their 50s, although in rare cases the condition develops in people in their 30s or 40s. In total, an estimated 200,000 people in the United States have early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s is sometimes hereditary. Researchers have identified mutations to three genes that increase the likelihood of developing early-onset Alzheimer’s. Genetic testing can reveal the presence of these genes.

It is unclear whether Alzheimer’s progresses more quickly in people who develop it at younger ages. Although there is anecdotal evidence that early-onset Alzheimer’s results in a faster decline, this may be because younger families have more work and family responsibilities that result in a quicker need for increased services or move to an assisted-care facility, according to the Mayo Clinic.

It is sometimes difficult to get a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s because the condition is so rare and doctors are less likely to recognize signs and symptoms of dementia in younger adults, states Alzforum. This may be true even in families that have a history of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Signs and Symptoms of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

Photo by Craig Breil, via University of Michigan Medical School Information Services
Photo by Craig Breil, via University of Michigan Medical School Information Services

Signs and symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s do not significantly differ from symptoms that occur when the condition develops at a later age. The condition can cause deterioration in memory, particularly in the ability to remember recent events, and it sometimes causes negative changes in personality, resulting in angry outbursts or a lack of patience. People with early-onset Alzheimer’s may also experience disorientation in familiar environments or lose the ability to find their way home from places they have visited many times before. They may develop communication difficulties, such as forgetting familiar words, or they may forget how to complete familiar tasks, such as balancing a checkbook or using a telephone.

People with Alzheimer’s sometimes develop apathy and become socially withdrawn. They may decline to participate in activities that they used to enjoy, exhibit signs of depression or become prone to anxiety or paranoia.

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Sometimes a colleague is the first person to notice symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s when the person loses the ability to complete routine tasks at work or develops problems adjusting to changes in the workplace.

Symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s are progressive and result in a continual decline in cognitive abilities that cannot be reversed.

Diagnosing Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

The diagnostic process for early-onset Alzheimer’s is the same as it is when the symptoms develop in an older person. The exam normally includes taking a medical history, performing blood tests and making neurological and psychiatric assessments. It may also include a CT or MRI imaging study of the brain, as well as an EEG to measure brain activity. The doctor also asks for any family history of early-onset dementia and tests for other conditions that can cause cognitive problems, such as vitamin and thyroid deficiencies.

Via Susumu Komatsu
Via Susumu Komatsu

There are no tests available that can definitively confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. If the doctor suspects Alzheimer’s, she may order tests of the patient’s cognitive abilities, then repeat the tests six months or a year later to see if the patient’s abilities deteriorate after that period.

Treatment of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

Although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are several drug treatments available that may delay cognitive deterioration, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. People with Alzheimer’s may also experience sleep problems and mood disorders that do respond to treatment.

Early detection of Alzheimer’s, regardless of age at onset, provides access to treatments that may slow the disease’s progression and ease symptoms such as insomnia and depression.

Want to Learn More?

Check out this video about a young woman whose mother was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s!

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