Early diagnosis is crucial for early-onset Alzheimer's

Dr. Jicha, UKHealth
Dr. Jicha, UKHealth submitted

Younger-onset (or early-onset) Alzheimer's disease refers to Alzheimer's disease in people younger than 65. It has been in the news lately: Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt, 59, recently stepped down from her job due to Alzheimer's. Early-onset Alzheimer's can affect people as young as their 40s. Because it strikes people in the prime of life, the early-onset form of the disease brings with it extra complications. According to the Alzheimer's Association, as many as 5 percent of Alzheimer's cases in the United States are early-onset.

Alzheimer's is a degenerative disease of cognitive impairment. People gradually lose their ability to understand, remember and think clearly. There is currently no known cure for Alzheimer's, although there are treatments that can slow the progression of symptoms.

When younger people develop Alzheimer's, they are typically living busy lives. They might have just reached the peak of their career, and they often are busy caring for children, and sometimes caring for their own older relatives.

Early-onset Alzheimer's often strikes before people qualify for retirement benefits, Social Security or Medicare. Thus it can be even more financially devastating than for older adults. Typically, younger people have not had as much time to plan for their financial future, so they often are not financially ready to retire. Unable to work, the affected person might be forced to take early retirement, losing income and health benefits.

In addition to the typical stages of coming to grips with an Alzheimer's diagnosis — anger, denial, depression, isolation and loss — those with the early-onset form of the disease might be faced with explaining the condition to their children, and with finding alternative caregiving arrangements for their own parents.

Although there is not yet a cure for Alzheimer's, there are medications that can ease its symptoms. Also, clinical trials are in progress to test possible treatments for the disease. Support services are available for people with Alzheimer's, their caregivers and families. For that reason, it is important for any cognitive impairment to be detected as early as possible. The first step in detecting mild cognitive impairment, a precursor to Alzheimer's, is a simple memory screening.

People of any age who suspect that they might have problems with memory are encouraged to seek screening and assistance.