We tend to think of Alzheimer’s Disease as an affliction of the elderly, and that’s often true. But research suggests that the earliest stages of the disease often occur in people under the age of 65, and one study estimates that as many as 47 million Americans over the age of 30 show signs of the early “preclinical” form of the disease.
The key to effectively dealing with early-onset Alzheimer’s is to recognize the signs as they begin to appear, especially in a relatively young patient. Unfortunately, the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s, such as changes in mood or behavior, are often misdiagnosed as depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental illness. Misdiagnosis leads to ineffective treatment, and Alzheimer’s goes undetected until it is advanced, a situation that results in decades of suffering for the patient and his or her loved ones.
Early Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease
As we age, nearly all of us experience some setbacks in our cognitive function. We have trouble remembering things, or we seem to get confused more than we used to. But when those cognitive difficulties come in clusters, or when they occur when we’re relatively young, they may be cause for concern.
The temptation is to think that if you or your loved one is young, there’s no way that those signs or symptoms could be an indication of Alzheimer’s. Missing the early signs of the disease, however, can mean a missed opportunity to help your loved one deal with the progression of the disease as soon as possible.
The signs of potential early-onset Alzheimer’s may include:
- Loss of Memory. Minor lapses in memory are normal for all of us, but an increase in memory loss beyond what is normal, such as forgetting important dates or asking repetitive questions, can be a warning sign.
- Struggling with Routine Activities. Sufferers of early-onset Alzheimer’s may have trouble focusing on tasks that they would normally complete quickly and easily every day.
- Changes in Mood or Social Behavior. Sufferers may become moody or depressed, and they may withdraw from social interactions or activities that used to be pleasurable.
- Language Problems. Sufferers may also have trouble finding the correct words to say in a particular situation or may have trouble maintaining a normal conversation.
- Losing Things. Beyond typical misplacing of items, sufferers may put things in unusual places and forget where they are.
- Difficulty with Problem Solving. Struggling with numbers, or with developing, remembering and following a plan may also be a warning sign.
- Disorientation or Confusion. As Alzheimer’s sets in, sufferers may have difficulty understanding where they are, what day or date it is, or how quickly or slowly time is passing.
- Judgment Problems. Alzheimer’s may manifest in poor judgment or in difficulty making rational decisions in areas such as finances or hygiene.
Learning to Spot and Treat Early Onset Alzheimer’s
In an attempt to get at the causes of Alzheimer’s Disease and to be able to identify the onset of the disease as early as possible, scientists have been working to find indicators that will show which patients are likely to develop the disease.
Some work has shown promise in identifying a genetic component to early-onset Alzheimer’s. Researchers have identified three genes–APP, PSEN1, and PSEN2–in which mutations are present in a relatively large proportion of early-onset Alzheimer’s patients.
These mutations appear to cause overproduction of a protein called amyloid-beta peptide, which in turn seems to cause the development of plaques that interfere with neuron function in the brain. A mutation of the PSEN1 gene called the A431E or “Jalisco” mutation has been linked, through the research of Dr. John Ringman, to cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s in patients of Mexican descent, for example.
Other research has focused on detection, rather than prediction, of the early onset of the disease. This type of research attempts to develop diagnostic techniques to spot the disease as soon as possible and to develop treatments that may slow the progression of the disease.
Dr. Reisa Sperling, Director of the Massachusetts Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, is currently conducting research using functional MRI (fMRI) and PET scanning technology to identify structural changes in the brain that accompany the earliest preclinical stages of the disease. Dr. Sperling is also leading a study of a new drug that may reduce amyloid levels in patients’ brains, and she is studying the effects of deep brain stimulation (DBS) in treating early-onset Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Paul Rosenberg, Lead Scientist at the Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is also conducting research using PET scans to identify the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Rosenberg’s goal is to find the links between Alzheimer’s, depression, and other disorders in the hope of reducing misdiagnoses. He also hopes to develop a more thorough understanding of the effects of amyloid in the brain, which may lead to effective treatments for the disease.
Preventing Early Onset Alzheimer’s
Just as we don’t know precisely what causes Alzheimer’s, we also don’t have a surefire way of preventing it. As scientists work to find causes, treatments and, potentially, a cure for the disease, the best course of action is to live in a way that can help to boost your cognitive function.
To lead a brain-healthy life, be sure to:
- Get plenty of exercise
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet
- Control your weight, and treat Type 2 diabetes
- Treat depression
- Maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Have good sleep habits
- Don’t smoke
- Limit alcohol consumption
- Remain socially active
- Keep your mind active and engaged
Taking steps to keep your brain as healthy as possible for as long as possible is important, but it’s also important to stay alert for the early warning signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Early detection, diagnosis, and intervention could give you and your loved ones a valuable head start on coping with the disease.
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