What Is Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease?

You forget things. It’s not just the occasional name or date, or misplaced keys, but people and events that have been part of the fabric of your life. Sometimes the way home from work doesn't seem familiar. You go in the kitchen to make dinner and can't follow the recipe. You've gotten some notices on your electric or water bill, after years without a late payment.

But you're in your late 40s, so it couldn't be Alzheimer's disease, could it?

It might. These things can sometimes happen to anyone, but it could also be a sign of something more serious.

Early-onset Alzheimer's disease is diagnosed before age 65. The news is usually shocking, and it means you need to plan now for big changes ahead, so you'll be safe and get the care you need as time goes on.

The early-onset form most often shows up when you're in your 40s and 50s. But it's not unheard of for people to get it as young as their 30s.

Because Alzheimer's robs you of your memory, your ability to think clearly, and ultimately to take care of yourself, you'll need a strong support system. Turn to family, friends, and local chapters of the Alzheimer's Association and other groups to get started making a plan for the rest of your life.

How Will I Get Diagnosed?

There's isn't a single test that confirms you have early-onset Alzheimer's. But there are several ways your doctor checks to see if you have it.

First, he'll ask you about your medical history, including any symptoms that are bothering you now. You'll also take tests that check your memory and see how well you solve problems.

You may also get imaging tests that look for changes in your brain and can help rule out other causes of your symptoms. They may include a CT scan, which is a powerful X-ray that makes detailed pictures inside your body. Or you might get an MRI, which uses magnets and radio waves to create images.

Your doctor may also suggest tests that look for changes in genes that are linked to early-onset Alzheimer's.

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What's Causing My Condition?

Most experts believe that Alzheimer's disease is caused by a buildup of a protein in the brain called amyloid. Too much affects the way you think.

There's a lot that scientists still need to learn about why the disease starts early in some people. In some cases it runs in families and may be due to changes in genes that get passed to you from your parents.

How Do I Treat Early-Onset Alzheimer's?

An important part of managing your condition is to stay as positive as you can. Keep up with the activities you still enjoy. Try different ways to relax, like yoga or deep-breathing.

Keep your body in good shape, too. Make sure you eat healthy food and get regular exercise.

There are medications that can help with some symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer's. Your doctor may prescribe drugs to help with memory loss, such as:

These medicines can delay or improve your symptoms for a few months to a few years. They may give you more time to live independently.

Your doctor also may also suggest sleeping pills, antidepressants, or tranquilizers, or to manage other problems related to Alzheimer's, like insomnia, night terrors, and anxiety.

How Should I Get Ready for the Future?

There are plans you can start making now that will be a big help later. For example, meet with a lawyer to learn about the arrangements you'll need. Giving someone "power of attorney," lets the people you love make health and money decisions for you when you can no longer do that on your own.

It's also a good idea to think about how you'll pay for some of your future health costs. Some things to consider are safety equipment you'll need at home or getting help from a professional caregiver. Get your family together to talk about your finances, and how much money you're likely to need to get proper care.

Now is also the time to start building your team. Lots of different people will be on it. Your relatives, friends, neighbors, and health professionals all have a role. Your family and your doctor can help you put a group together.

The important thing is to figure out what you want, make a specific, realistic plan, and to let people around you know.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on January 21, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Alzheimer's Association: "10 Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's," "Alzheimer's changes the whole brain," "Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia," "Down Syndrome and Alzheimer's Disease," "If you have younger-onset Alzheimer's," "Risk Factors," "The Search for Alzheimer’s Causes and Risk Factors," "Treatments for Alzheimer's Disease," "Treatments for Sleep Disturbances," "Younger/Early Onset Alzheimer's & Dementia."

Cleveland Clinic: "Living with early-onset."

Keith N. Fargo, PhD, Alzheimer's Association, Chicago.

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease."

Richard Lipton, MD, Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York City.

National Institute on Aging: "About Alzheimer's Disease: Causes," "Alzheimer's Disease: Unraveling the Mystery."

News release, FDA.

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