What is Early Onset Alzheimer's?
Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is an incurable neurological condition that causes a decline in memory and cognitive functions. It is the most common cause of dementia, affecting millions of people around the world. Generally, Alzheimer's is associated with older populations, with the standard age of onset being 65 or older.
However, there is a rarer form of AD known as Early Onset Alzheimer's, or EOA, that can begin much earlier in life, sometimes even in one's 30s and 40s. This type of Alzheimer's is believed to affect around 200,000 Americans annually and is a devastating diagnosis to receive. Though it is possible to live with EOA, it's important to understand what causes this disease and how to manage it when it occurs.
In this guide, we'll explore the difference between late and early onset Alzheimer's, discuss the potential causes of EOA, go over how to diagnose it, cover treatments and management options, and offer advice for caregivers. We'll also provide an overview of current research into therapies that may help those with this condition.
What is Alzheimer's Disease?
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually even the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with AD, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Unfortunately, early onset Alzheimer’s can manifest in people as young as 30.
AD affects different people in different ways, although common symptoms include:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life
- Challenges in planning or solving problems
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
- Confusion with time or place
- Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
- new problems with words in speaking or writing
- Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
- Decreased or poor judgment
- Withdrawal from work or social activities
- Changes in mood and personality
Alzheimer's is a slowly progressive condition that usually begins with mild memory problems and gradually worsens over time. Most people with Alzheimer’s will need increasingly complex caregiver help as the condition progresses.
Late-Onset vs Early-Onset Alzheimer's
The two main types of Alzheimer’s are late-onset and early-onset. Generally, late-onset Alzheimer’s affects people 65 or older, while early-onset Alzheimer’s affects people before 65 years old. However, some people develop symptoms in their 40s or 50s. It is estimated that 10-15% of people with AD have early onset.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s is more likely to have a genetic component than late-onset Alzheimer’s. About 5% of people with early-onset Alzheimer’s have a family history of the disease, compared to less than 1% of people with late-onset.
Symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s are similar to symptoms of late-onset Alzheimer’s, but the timeline of progression is often faster. In addition, the impact on the person’s life is greater since the person is still working and participating in other daily activities.
Causes of Early Onset Alzheimer's
Early onset Alzheimer's is a form of the disease that affects people in their 40s and 50s, as opposed to the more common age range of 65 or older. Researchers have determined that early onset Alzheimer's, like its more common counterpart, is caused by a build-up of proteins in the brain known as amyloid plaques. However, the cause of why these proteins accumulate at a younger age is still unknown.
Risk factors for early onset Alzheimer's generally include genetics, lifestyle, environment, and other medical conditions. Studies suggest that hereditary factors play a role in up to 20% of cases. People with family members who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at an earlier age may be at higher risk. Lifestyle choices, such as smoking, high alcohol consumption, and obesity, may also contribute to an increased risk.
In addition to hereditary and lifestyle factors, certain medical conditions can increase the risk of developing early onset Alzheimer’s. These conditions include stroke, diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Finally, environmental exposure to toxins, such as lead, can also influence the development of Alzheimer's.
Diagnosis for Early Onset Alzheimer’s
If you suspect that you or a loved one may be at risk for early onset Alzheimer’s it is important to get a proper diagnosis to understand what is happening.
Typically the first step in diagnosing Alzheimer’s involves talking to your doctor and being evaluated. They may do physical tests, such as blood tests, to rule out other medical conditions that can cause similar symptoms. Imaging scans of the brain, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans, can also be used to look for problems in the brain that might be causing these symptoms.
The doctor may also use cognitive tests or assessments to evaluate memory, problem-solving, language and other mental skills. These tests often involve questions, puzzles or written and verbal tasks that measure various aspects of thinking.
Based on this evaluation process and using criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the doctor may be able to provide a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Treatment and Management of Early Onset Alzheimer's
When it comes to treating and managing early onset Alzheimer's, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. As a progressive disease, treatment and management plans must be tailored to each individual’s needs and overall health.
Typically, medication and non-medication therapies are used to help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Medications may include cholinesterase inhibitors, which can help improve memory, concentration and problem-solving; glutamate inhibitors, which can help treat neuropsychiatric symptoms such as agitation, delusions, and hallucinations; and memantine, which can also help reduce these symptoms.
In addition, non-medication approaches can be used to improve cognition, help with daily living activities, and increase social engagement. Cognitive training exercises, arts and music therapies, physical activities and other lifestyle interventions can all help improve quality of life while living with early onset Alzheimer's.
Managing stress and emotional health is also important. Creating an environment where the individual feels comfortable, understands their own abilities and limitations, and can engage in meaningful activities are all essential for improving and maintaining emotional wellbeing. Support from family and friends is also incredibly important.
Lastly, proper nutrition and diet are essential for those with early onset Alzheimer's. Eating a balanced diet that includes foods rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fatty acids, and other essential nutrients can help improve cognitive function. Managing blood sugar levels, drinking plenty of water, and limiting alcohol, caffeine, and sugar can also be beneficial.
Tips for Caregivers
As a caregiver of someone affected by early onset Alzheimer's, it can be overwhelming to navigate the challenging journey ahead. Here are some tips on how you can best support your loved one:
- Be patient and understanding - Remember that while there may be moments of confusion and difficulty, your loved one is still the same person underneath and deserves the same respect.
- Structure their day - Plan out activities, meals, and tasks in advance to help with day-to-day organization.
- Offer reassurance - Remain positive and reassure your loved one when they are feeling scared or confused.
- Stay active - Exercise and activities can help with motor skills and memory.
- Seek professional help - Visit a doctor or specialist to discuss treatment options and potential therapies.
- Take time for yourself - Caregiving can be an intense emotional experience. Make sure to find time for yourself to relax and unwind.
Supporting someone affected by early onset Alzheimer's can be daunting, but knowing the right ways to help can make all the difference. With the above tips you can be a source of comfort and assistance for your loved one as they traverse this difficult journey.
Potential Therapies for Early Onset Alzheimer's
Early onset Alzheimer's is a difficult and serious condition, and one that can be hard to accept. There is currently no cure for the disease, but there are therapies that can help slow the progression of Alzheimer's and manage the symptoms.
Research is ongoing in this field, and there has been some positive findings in recent years. Here are some potential treatment options for early onset Alzheimer's that are currently being explored:
- Lifestyle Changes - Eating a healthy diet, regular exercise, and staying socially active can all help reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and slow its progression.
- Medications - There are a range of medications available that can help manage symptoms or delay the onset of Alzheimer's. These include cholinesterase inhibitors and memantine.
- Alternative Medicine - There are a number of alternative treatments for Alzheimer’s such as Ginkgo biloba, curcumin, omega-3 fatty acids, and coconut oil.
- Brain Training - Regular cognitive training can help build mental reserves which can potentially assist with managing symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
- Stem Cell Therapy - Scientists are researching the use of stem cells to try and regenerate nerve cells in the brain, but at this stage results are inconclusive.
It is important to remember that each person’s experience with early onset Alzheimer's will be unique. Working with a doctor or specialist is the best way to ensure that the right course of treatment is followed.
In conclusion, we now know that early onset Alzheimer's can begin at any age and, although it is more common in older populations, it is possible to develop the disease before age 65. The onset of this type of Alzheimer’s is caused by various genetic and environmental factors, although researchers are still investigating many of these causes. Diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's must be handled carefully to ensure an accurate assessment and to provide the best treatment plan. Treatment for this type of Alzheimer's typically involves a combination of medications, lifestyle changes and therapy. Family members and caregivers should be aware of the signs and symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's, and use some of the techniques outlined in this guide to help provide better support to the individual. Finally, further research is being conducted into potential therapies and treatments for early onset Alzheimer's, which may offer new hope to those affected by the condition.