Early-onset Alzheimer’s, also called familial Alzheimer’s disease, is a rare, inherited form of Alzheimer’s that affects individuals younger than 65 years of age. According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease only accounts for 5 to 10 percent of all cases of Alzheimer’s disease. The disease can develop in people as young as 30 years of age, but is more likely to develop when an individual is in his 50s.
Causes of Early-onset Alzheimer’s
Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease demonstrates very strong inheritance patterns. According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, if even one parent has early-onset Alzheimer’s, his child has a 50 percent chance of inheriting the disease. If both parents have the disease, the child will almost inevitably develop it as well.
Early-onset dementia is associated with certain genetic mutations that alter a group of proteins in the brain called “presenilins.” These changes to the brain’s protein structure lead to a build up of amyloid plaques in the brain. Amyloid plaques form when clumps of the protein “beta-amyloid” build up in the brain. These clumps form plaques between the neurons in the brain, which prevents the neurons from communicating with one another. This inhibits proper functioning of the brain. Amyloid plaques are common in people with both late and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Progression of Early-onset Alzheimer’s
The symptoms of Alzheimer’s are the same for both late and early-onset. In cases of early-onset dementia, however, symptoms appear earlier in life. Treatment is also the same. Most people take medication and adopt healthy lifestyle choices to slow the progression of the disease.
Although some experts believe that early-onset Alzheimer’s progresses faster than late-onset Alzheimer’s, the evidence to support this idea is inconclusive. It may be that the disease only appears to progress more rapidly because it develops in young, relatively healthy individuals.
The Unique Challenges of Early-onset Alzheimer’s
Early-onset Alzheimer’s produces a unique set of challenges for both the Alzheimer’s sufferer and their family. Some of these challenges include:
- Caring for elderly parents as well as a spouse with Alzheimer’s
- Cutting back on hours at work or giving up a job entirely
- Financial difficulties due to inability to work
- Loss of intimacy within the spousal relationship
- Raising children who are still living at home.
Help for Those with Early-onset Alzheimer’s
Many non-profit organizations are available to assist people with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. These organizations can provide the education, assistance and support that are so necessary to early-onset Alzheimer’s sufferers and their families. If a loved one has recently been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, such an organization can be an invaluable resource and source of support.
Alzheimer Society of Canada. (n.d.) Alzheimer’s disease and genetics: the role of genes in Alzheimer’s disease. Retrieved April 24, 2010, from http://www.alzheimer.ca/english/disease/causes-heredity.htm.
Mayo Clinic. (2009). Early-onset Alzheimer’s: when symptoms begin before 65. Retrieved June 9, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alzheimers/AZ00009.
U.S. National Institutes of Health National Institute of Aging. (2006). Beta-amyloid and its damaging effects on neurons. Retrieved April 24, 2010, from http://www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers/Publications/ADProgress2005_2006/Part2/beta_amyloid.htm.htm.
U.S. National Institutes of Health National Institute of Aging. (2008). The hallmarks of AD. Retrieved April 24, 2010, from http://www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers/Publications/Unraveling/Part2/hallmarks.htm.