Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Hits Hard
An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease—an
irreversible, degenerative disorder of the brain that affects problem-solving
abilities, behavior and speech. It is typically associated with old age,
and many of us have older family members who have been affected. As baby
boomers age, the number of Alzheimer’s victims is expected to increase.
But approximately 200,000 of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are
under age 65. Known as early-onset Alzheimer’s, the disease can
even strike people in their 30s or 40s—at a time when they are beginning
to build their careers, their savings and their families, and are least
likely to have the financial and emotional abilities to cope.
A diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s can be devastating. The person
with Alzheimer’s will become unable to work. The spouse often has
to work less or even stop working to become the caregiver. Savings can
be wiped out quickly. With an average life expectancy of just 8-10 years
after diagnosis, dreams of a long life together fade as the Alzheimer’s
patient slips away.
Early-onset Alzheimer’s is difficult to diagnose, primarily because
it is not expected at such a young age. And because it progresses gradually,
it is often confused with other conditions. It’s easy to blame stress,
depression and menopause (in women) for early symptoms, which can include
fatigue, disorientation, not being able to find the right words, inability
to focus and engage, and forgetfulness. Practically everyone has forgotten
where we put something or why we came into a room, and we don’t
give these lapses much thought. Medications, a brain tumor, even a urinary
tract infection, can cause similar symptoms.
Often, co-workers may be the first ones to spot that something is truly
wrong. Reports and tasks that were routine may become extremely difficult,
take much longer and/or have errors. At the same time, it’s important
not to assume that these changes in performance mean that someone has
That’s why it’s important to get the proper testing. Early-onset
Alzheimer’s often has a genetic component, with several members
of the same family having it. Cognitive testing is also recommended. Ultimately,
it may take a brain scan to confirm the diagnosis.
While there are no cures yet, there are medications that can slow the progression
of Alzheimer’s, but they need to be taken early to be most effective.
That’s another incentive to have the testing done as soon as you
suspect something may be wrong.