How do you stay present? How do you keep the life going that you value?
Those are the words of actress Julianne Moore, who recently won an Oscar for her portrayal of a woman struck with early-onset Alzheimer’s in the movie Still Alice. A 50 year-old linguistics professor with keen intellect, Alice Howland’s character begins the film troubled by moments of forgetfulness that quickly progress into terrifying episodes of disorientation – symptoms that land her in the neurology department of Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where she’s given her shocking and devastating diagnosis. What follows is the poignant, and sometimes devastating struggle that Alice and her family share as they try desperately to cope with their new reality.
While this may sound like just a good Hollywood script, Still Alice depicts a struggle that thousands of American families are facing right now. Over 200,000 of the 5.3 million people in the US with Alzheimer’s are under the age of 65 and considered early-onset –- some in their 30s and 40s. And, like Alice Howland, almost 2/3 of all Alzheimer’s patients are women. Most of those diagnosed before age 65 have the common form of Alzheimer’s with similar symptoms and progression; a few hundred have what’s known as Genetic Alzheimer’s disease, which is extremely rare and carries a genetic mutation passed through successive generations.
Because early-onset Alzheimer’s strikes so young, its proper diagnosis can be tricky and elusive. Many of those exhibiting early symptoms – forgetfulness, losing track of time or familiar objects, changes in mood or personality – are often misdiagnosed as suffering from stress, or even neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis. If you or someone you know has reason to believe they may have early-onset Alzheimer’s, it’s important to see a specialist in the field who can perform the proper evaluation complete with brain imaging, a physical and neurological exam, mental status testing, and a full medical history.
The Alzheimer’s Association website provides meaningful support for patients and families impacted by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Click here for their full resource guide.