Does Alzheimer’s only affect old people?

It’s common to associate Alzheimer’s disease and dementia with older people but the condition can affect younger people too. Of all the people who have Alzheimer’s disease, about 5 percent will develop symptoms before age 65.

People with dementia whose symptoms started before they were 65 are often described as having young-onset dementia. This can also be referred to as ‘early onset’ or ‘working-age’ dementia.

It’s important to recognise that a younger person with dementia is more likely to have a rarer and genetic form of dementia. As they will be at a different stage in their life than an older person, they are also more likely to:

 

  • Be in work at the time of diagnosis
  • Have a partner who still works
  • Have dependent children
  • Have older parents to care for
  • Have heavy financial commitments, such as a mortgage
  • Be more physically fit and active

 

Getting an accurate diagnosis is key but can prove difficult

It can take longer for a younger person to be diagnosed and there are good reasons for this. The condition is not necessarily expected in younger people and those suffering for example from depression, anxiety, stress and the menopause may have similar symptoms to those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s so it can be difficult to differentiate. In this situation monitoring memory function, activities of daily living and behaviour over time is important. At the present time and mainly in a clinical research setting new biomarker tests such as genetic tests, brain scans and measuring proteins in spinal fluid can help doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s more accurately and at an earlier stage. The increasing use of these tests is widely seen as a breakthrough in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

People can also be reluctant to accept there is anything wrong when they are otherwise fit and well, and they may put off visiting their doctor. The contribution of family members and carers is often very important in helping to reach a correct diagnosis. Many friends and relatives say that when they look back, the first sign was that the person did not seem quite themselves. For many, the person started to make mistakes and struggle at work even if their job had not changed. For others, problems with close relationships were the first signs. Keeping a symptom diary may be useful if you suspect something is not right.

 What causes young-onset dementia?

The most common causes of young-onset dementia are the same progressive diseases that cause most cases of dementia in older people. It’s clear that the mix of causes of young-onset dementia is different from that in older people. The same disease in younger people can also have different symptoms. The main signs and symptoms include:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Difficulty in completing tasks at home, work or leisure
  • Confusion with time or place
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities

 

Take a proactive approach

Every person’s experience of living with dementia is different and is likely to change over time. Younger people with dementia are usually otherwise fit and healthy and it’s important that they are assisted in maintaining their physical health and well-being for as long as possible.

It is very important to understand that just because you think you or someone close to you may be experiencing some of the early signs, this does not necessarily mean that you or they have dementia.  If you have cause for concern, it’s a good idea to make an appointment to see your doctor and discuss it with them as soon as possible. Seeing a doctor early on can reduce the anxiety and worry you may be feeling and provide you with answers.

You can also be proactive and contact Glasgow Memory Clinic where screening may be offered for one of our current studies. We have studies at the clinic for both healthy volunteers to take part in and for those people with a wide spectrum of memory problems. Our experience is that taking part in research is a positive thing to do. If you would like to find out more, please contact our research team on 0141 948 0206 for an initial discussion.

Posted 25th August 2017

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