When Alzheimer’s Disease Strikes in Middle-Age

Worried mature couple with doctor using digital tablet.

Two years ago, actress Julianne Moore received the Best Actress Oscar at the Academy Awards for her portrayal of a Columbia University professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in the movie Still Alice. The poignant film brought some much-needed publicity to the fact that younger people can develop Alzheimer’s, which is usually assumed to be a disease of people older than 65.

While fewer than 5 percent of patients develop the disease at an early age, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that as many as 200,000 Americans have early-onset Alzheimer’s, most of them in their 40s and 50s. (Early-onset Alzheimer’s is also referred to as “younger-onset Alzheimer’s”). This form of the disease has been described as particularly cruel, as it strikes at a time when patients are often otherwise quite healthy and fit, and are beginning to reap the rewards of working hard and raising a family.

This can be particularly hard on caregivers. Early-onset Alzheimer’s often creates even greater burdens for families than the more common late-onset form of the disease. Trying to care for a spouse with the disease—who most likely can no longer work—while raising a family brings a whole new set of challenges to caregiving. That’s why, often, caregiving duties also fall on the children of these families.

Individuals with early-onset Alzheimer’s and their caregivers face a unique set of challenges. Because no one expects a younger person to have the disease, it may be misdiagnosed, and people may not understand or have sympathy for someone living with it. Employers may think someone is simply “losing it” or a spouse may become irritated that their partner in life seems to be letting important tasks go undone.

One of the first things caregivers may face is the question from people who say “He’s too young to have Alzheimer’s!” That’s why it’s important for caregivers to become educated. They should learn about financial resources, such as Social Security’s Compassionate Allowances. Families should also know that early-onset Alzheimer’s has a genetic component to it, which means that it runs in families. The genetic connection is much stronger in early-onset Alzheimer’s, meaning that if a person’s parent or grandparent is diagnosed with the disease, the person’s chances of developing the condition are much higher compared to those whose family member has later-onset Alzheimer’s.

There is a genetic test that can tell if a person has an increased chance of getting the disease. Getting tested is a very personal decision. Before deciding on whether to get the test, it’s important to speak with a healthcare professional about the options. Getting tested could lead to an accurate diagnosis, allowing patient and family to plan ahead for care, to ensure the family will be taken care of, and to begin treatment as early as possible. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, there are some treatment options available that may help ease its symptoms.

To find more information about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, visit the websites of the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association.

The information in this article is not intended to take the place of the advice of your doctor. Talk to a healthcare provider if you have questions about Alzheimer’s disease and genetic testing.

Source: IlluminAge AgeWise

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