A Look at Early Onset Alzheimer’s

January 10, 2018

We all joke about getting more forgetful as we get older (where were those keys again?). But those “senior moments” that our kids might tease us about can nonetheless feel a bit unnerving – particularly when we hear about the very real phenomenon of Early Onset Alzheimer’s which, while rare, can strike people in their 40s and 50s. At what point is forgetfulness simply age-appropriate, and when does it warrant further exploration? A review of the basics of Early Onset can help make that distinction.

A Look at the Numbers

Right now over 5.5 million Americans are suffering from Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia. Of that number, about 6% – or roughly 200,000 people, all under the age of 65 – have been diagnosed with Early Onset. The vast majority of Early Onset patients begin showing signs in their 40s and 50s, but a very small percentage can become symptomatic before then. Of all those diagnosed, 60-70% have what is called “familial Alzheimer’s” which runs in families, and which is caused by a genetic mutation. The remainder suffers from conventional Alzheimer’s of unknown origin.

Signs and Symptoms

Minus the evidence of a genetic mutation, Early Onset can be tricky to diagnose. Not only is it extremely rare, but its symptoms can sometimes be attributed to stress or other factors.  Regardless, a review of its early symptoms is helpful when distinguishing the normal lapses most of us experience from what is considered more serious. Early symptoms include:

  • Forgetting important things, especially newly-learned information or well-known dates
  • Trouble following basic directions, like a recipe
  • Asking for the same information repeatedly and over a short period
  • Trouble with depth perception and other vision issues
  • Losing track of where you are and how you got there

Just like conventional Alzheimer’s, Early Onset is progressive. Its later symptoms include:

  • Trouble swallowing, walking, or speaking
  • Suspicion and paranoia
  • Severe mood swings and changes in behavior
  • Intensifying confusion about time and place, as well as life events

Diagnosis and Management

Like conventional Alzheimer’s, there is no singular medical procedure that can conclusively diagnose Early Onset. Once any combination of symptoms appear, a full family history is taken, along with a series of cognitive tests to assess memory, problem solving, and other associated functions. Your physician may then order a neuropsychological evaluation that would include spinal fluid, blood, and urine testing, along with a brain CT or MRI to search for signs of damaged brain tissue.

While there are no known medical treatments for Early Onset, doctors have had mixed results with certain medications that have shown success in delaying or slowing its progression. You can learn more about these from the Alzheimer’s Organization.

For more information on Early Onset Alzheimer’s, check out this helpful Resource List  from the NIH.