Alzheimer’s disease is not limited to the elderly

A man in his early 50s experiences personality changes that baffle his family and land him in jail when police don’t know how to deal with him… A 58-year-old business executive gets lost on the way home from work – a route he’s driven for more than 10 years… Severe memory lapses lead a rising business manager under age 50 to lose career momentum and experience several demotions… A woman diagnosed with Younger Onset Alzheimer’s disease at age 50 has to endure comments that she’s “being silly” when she tries to explain her symptoms to coworkers… The majority of people affected by Alzheimer’s disease fit into a certain stereotype: senior citizens well over age 65, primarily women. For many people, this “senility” is not surprising. It’s even expected. But when the afflicted person is younger – in the prime of life – people are confused. Family members may be upset or angry. Doctors often are at a loss for a diagnosis.

How common is younger-onset Alzheimer’s?
Age is the primary risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Of the nearly six million people in the United States living with Alzheimer’s dementia, an estimated 200,000 are under the age of 65, equal to about 0.0007 percent of people in the U.S. of that age range. The risk rises progressively as we age: an estimated 3 percent of people ages 65 to 74 have the disease; 17 percent of those 75 to 84, and 32 percent of those age 85 or older. For the individual in his or her late 60s or early 70s, the diagnosis is tragic. Their hopes of enjoying the retirement they’ve saved all their life for are shattered. For people in their later 70s or 80s or beyond, there is the physical challenge that caregiving places on older spouses and partners, or on children who have lives of their own. But for the person living with Alzheimer’s dementia in his or her 40s or 50s, retirement plans aren’t even fully formed. The children may not yet be out of school. There is still the fear of losing a much-needed job…of leaving a beloved spouse alone at a much-too young age…

The challenge of caregiving
“Just serving as a caregiver for a parent or loved one with Alzheimer’s is a very physically and emotionally demanding role,” said Ralph Patrick, director of the Greater Boulder Area regional office of Alzheimer’s Association based in Louisville. “When a spouse in his or her early 60s or 50s or even 40s is diagnosed, the burden on caregivers increases dramatically not only because of the tragedy of the younger diagnosis, but because the individual diagnosed was being counted on as a caregiver, wage earner and life partner.” Of all caregivers surveyed by the Alzheimer’s Association, nearly 75 percent report feeling somewhat or very concerned about maintaining their own health. In addition, over one in three dementia caregivers say their health has gotten worse due to their care responsibilities. “These statistics apply to any caregiver,” said Patrick. “When the caregiver and their loved one are dealing with a case of younger onset Alzheimer’s, the risks of depression and physical exhaustion are amplified, and caregivers must remember to put a premium on their own health and well-being.”

Employment considerations
For the 200,000 or so people in their 40s, 50s or early 60s – still in their prime employment years – facing symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the future can be quite frightening. Will their declining mental capacity enable them to keep working? Will they be able to remain physically safe? Can they continue to provide for their families? Will they get to enjoy the fruit of all of their labors? “Even if they don’t have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, people living with the symptoms of dementia are uncertain whether they will get fired from their jobs if they reveal the changes they are experiencing,” said Patrick. “They want to know, ‘will I still be employable?’”

The impact on working spouses
Among Alzheimer’s and dementia caregivers who are employed full or part-time, 57 percent said they had to go in late, leave early or take time off because of their caregiving responsibilities. In addition, 18 percent had to go from working full-time to part-time, 16 percent had to take a leave of absence, and 8 percent turned down a promotion due to the burden of caregiving. Sometimes continuing to work isn’t even an option. About 16 percent of caregivers reported quitting work entirely either to become a caregiver in the first place or because their caregiving duties became too burdensome.

The risk of misdiagnosis
Receiving a diagnosis for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can be challenging even when the individual is older – only about one-half of persons with Alzheimer’s in the United States receive a diagnosis. But when the individual is younger, physicians often will look to other causes, such as depression or various physical or mental health issues, before testing for Alzheimer’s.

“All too frequently, doctors, first responders and others who encounter younger individuals with Alzheimer’s will not believe that the personality or memory issues plaguing these people could be caused by dementia,” said Patrick. “It can take a long time to get a proper diagnosis because some doctors, even neurologists, won’t perform Alzheimer’s testing on someone younger.”

What can families do?
“Sadly, I believe there are more families out there living with younger-onset Alzheimer’s than we realize,” said Patrick. “Misdiagnosis and the belief that what people are experiencing can’t really be Alzheimer’s causes cases like this to go unreported.”

Patrick encourages families to talk with the Alzheimer’s Association – whether through one of the eight offices scattered across Colorado (Colorado Springs, Denver, Durango, Fort Collins, Grand Junction, Greeley, Louisville and Pueblo) or through the free 24/7 Helpline (800-272-3900), which is staffed around the clock by trained professional counselors.

“My best advice is that if you are seeing several of the 10 Signs of Alzheimer’s disease, talk with your family physician, and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion,” said Patrick. “Our staff can help with guidance on next steps, including getting a diagnosis, support groups, education and more.”

10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease
While every case of Alzheimer’s disease is unique, the most common symptoms of the disease are:

1.Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
2.Challenges in planning or solving problems.
3.Difficulty completing familiar tasks.
4.Confusion with time or place.
5.Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
6.New problems with words in speaking or writing.
7.Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
8.Decreased or poor judgment.
9.Withdrawal from work or social activities.
10.Changes in mood and personality.

“There are certain risk factors that may increase the odds a person will develop Alzheimer’s, such as diabetes, a head injury, vascular problems, living with anxiety or depression, or a family history of the disease,” said Patrick. “There also can be other causes underlying these symptoms, including vitamin deficiencies, reactions to medication, thyroid problems, drug withdrawal or a brain tumor. That is why a physician’s diagnosis is so important.”

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