Every three seconds someone in the world develops dementia, but according to Alzheimer’s Disease International, most people with dementia do not receive a diagnosis or support.
This World Alzheimer’s Day (21 September) and throughout World Alzheimer’s Month, the charity is encouraging the public to learn the early warning signs so they can better access the help they need - and this includes the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Although dementia typically affects people over the age of 65, early-onset Alzheimer’s affects adults far younger, usually from the age of 30.
“Dementia is not a normal part of ageing and may also affect those who start to show symptoms under the age of 60,” Paola Barbarino, CEO of Alzheimer’s Disease International told HuffPost UK.
“World Alzheimer’s Month is a critical opportunity to make earlier diagnosis of dementia a global priority.”
What is early on-set Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia and according to Professor Graham Stokes, Bupa’s global director for dementia care, early on-set Alzheimer’s effects younger adults, typically in their 30s, 40s, 50s or early 60s.
“It’s a less common form of Alzheimer’s and is estimated to affect around 5% of people with the disease, or around 25,000 people in the UK,” he told HuffPost UK.
“It follows the same behavioural and intellectual patterns as Alzheimer’s in later life, and is a progressive disease meaning that symptoms will start off small and gradually get worse.
“Given it’s much less common in younger adults, it’s often harder to spot and it’s often misdiagnosed as depression or stress.”
What are the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s?
According to Professor Stokes, many of the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s will be the same as those experienced by older people, but “in younger people, the decline can be more rapid”.
Symptoms include short-term memory loss, getting muddled and forgetting names and dates, becoming distracted or showing unusual behaviour, like angry outbursts.
Some people with Alziemer’s may develop aphasia - meaning they find it difficult to find the right words to communicate – or they may experience visual problems, affecting their perception of speed or distance.
“One of the key differentiators for early on-set Alzheimer’s is around the lifestyles people lead,” Professor Stokes said.
“Typically those in their younger adult lives might have jobs or families to support, meaning the impact of the diagnosis can seem much greater.
“That’s why a strong support network is so important, and it’s vital that we remember that they’re still the same person. Just because someone has Alzheimer’s doesn’t mean their personality has changed.”
Dr James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, added that people with early-onset Alzheimer’s are sometimes originally misdiagnosed with other conditions such as depression or anxiety.
“It can be hard to believe that dementia can affect people in their 50s, but sadly there are over 42,000 people living with dementia in the UK who are under the age of 65,” he said.
“Apathy, irritability or a change in personality may not seem like symptoms of dementia, but are more common symptoms in younger people, which can make diagnosis complex. If you have any concerns, it is best to visit your GP.”
What causes early-onset Alzheimer’s?
According to Alzheimer’s Research UK, in the vast majority of cases the cause of early-onset Alzheimer’s is still unclear, although in some rare cases it has been liked to our genes.
In these instances, the illness is referred to as “inherited” or “familial” Alzheimer’s.
“Several genes have been found that play a role in the development of rare familial Alzheimer’s,” the website explains.
“Mistakes in these genes (called mutations) can cause a build-up of a toxic protein called amyloid in the brain.
“If someone has a strong family history of Alzheimer’s at a young age, genetic testing may be suggested and genetic counselling may be offered to close relatives.”
What treatment is available for early-onset Alzheimer’s?
According to Professor Stokes, while the disease can’t currently be treated, “there are practical steps that can be taken to manage it and reduce its impact on day to day life”.
“As with any form of dementia, it’s really important that medical advice is sought as soon as possible,” he said.
There is no medication that can halt the progression of the disease, however patients may be prescribed a cholinesterase inhibitor or Memantine, which can both limit the impact of symptoms and help an individual function at a higher level than they would do without the drugs.
As with any type of Alzheimer’s, those with early-onset Alzheimer’s may be advised to do cognitive stimulation activities, such as games or practical tasks like baking, which may improve memory.
People diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s may also be offered cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help them process and manage the emotional impact of diagnosis.
If you’re concerned about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, visit your GP.