HealthONE - June 12, 2018

Many people associate Alzheimer’s disease with senior citizens or the elderly population. Some might have a parent, grandparent or older relative in the early or late stages of Alzheimer’s, which is a progressive brain disorder. Statistically, most people who develop Alzheimer’s are age 65 and older. An estimated 5.5 million people in the U.S. live with Alzheimer's. Roughly two-thirds of these older Alzheimer’s patients are women.

However, what many don’t know is that Alzheimer’s can develop in someone under the age of 65. Approximately 200,000 adults in the U.S. have been diagnosed with younger-onset or early-onset Alzheimer’s. While early-onset Alzheimer’s is not common, it does develop in a small number of the population.

Signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease
In terms of progressive deterioration of cognitive function, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (EOAD) is the same as Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are some differences between these two types of Alzheimer’s. There may be a genetic component to early-onset Alzheimer’s. More research is being conducted on this topic.

Signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s can include:

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Losing track of dates
  • Struggling to find or remember words when talking
  • Forgetfulness or trouble focusing
  • Confusion
  • Decline in thinking skills

Why early-onset Alzheimer’s is so difficult to spot
In our daily lives, many of us have experienced at least a few of the signs of Alzheimer’s ourselves. We’ve all forgotten a doctor’s appointment, messed up our kids’ after-school schedule or missed a deadline at work from time to time. For those in middle age, it’s common to laugh off these brain fogs as having a “senior moment.”

Early-onset Alzheimer’s can be hard to spot in middle-aged people, as many healthcare providers are not expecting someone in this age group to have developed the condition. It’s easy to write off forgetfulness or confusion as a result of stress or having a demanding schedule.

Diagnosing early-onset Alzheimer’s
Currently, there isn’t a specific test that indicates whether or not someone has Alzheimer’s. Diagnosing early-onset Alzheimer’s involves a thorough medical history and a complete medical exam, which also rules out other health issues that might be causing dementia-type symptoms. A doctor may administer a neurological test, which looks at cognitive function, memory and problem solving. Patients might also undergo a blood test or brain imaging, like an MRI. This type of testing depends on a variety of factors, such as a patient’s family history of Alzheimer’s.

Other types of dementia affecting people under age 65
The common signs of early-onset Alzheimer’s could actually indicate a different type of dementia, some of which could develop or occur before the age of 65. These types of dementia in the under-65 population include:

  • Vascular dementia — Caused by damage in the different vascular territories of the brain. Vascular dementia is typically the result of small strokes, where the oxygen to the brain is blocked, causing brain cells to die. Symptoms include impaired judgement and difficulty making decisions.
  • Frontotemporal dementias (FTD) — FTD is the third-most common type of dementia in people under age 65 and is typically diagnosed between ages 45 to 65. In about one-third of cases, FTD is inherited. Symptoms include difficulty with language and behavioral changes. 
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBD) — A traumatic brain injury refers to acute trauma caused by a violent impact to the head. Someone who has been in a car accident or suffered a concussion may have a TBD. 
  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — CTE refers to repetitive brain trauma, such as sustained trauma to the head or a persistent head injury. Athletes (especially football players and boxers) or someone in the military (who has experienced a blast injury) might have CTE.

  • Alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD) — The most common type of alcohol-related brain damage is cognitive impairment, which occurs in 50 to 70 percent of alcohol abusers. This condition may be partially or fully reversible if a person stops drinking. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is common in people who drink excessively; but in fact, these are two different conditions. Wernicke’s syndrome requires immediate medical attention and signs include stumbling, confusion and lack of coordination. Korsakoff syndrome is chronic and irreversible and causes both short and long-term memory loss.

  • Immunologically mediated dementias — These kinds of dementia can be the hardest to identify. These dementias are caused by an underlying condition, such as an autoimmune disease or cancer. With autoimmune-mediated dementia, once the underlying condition is treated, this type of dementia can be treated quickly and successfully.

At HealthONE, our world-class neurologists and neurosurgeons, along with our highly trained neurology staff, offer a comprehensive, patient-centered program. Our neurology team knows how difficult neurological disorders can be to overcome, which is why our doctors treat not just the condition, but each person as well. Additionally, our expert neurosurgeons provide emergency surgery for individuals who have suffered trauma to the head or spine.