Learning More About Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease

Sunrise Senior Living  |  February 27, 2020
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Model, restauranteur, and lifestyle maven B. Smith lost her battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s this week. Smith was well-known for being a fabulous cook and charming entertainer. When she lost her train of thought during a live demonstration on the TODAY Show in 2013, she feared the forgetfulness that had been plaguing her might be something more serious than the result of a hectic life. Her physician soon confirmed those suspicions.

Actress Julianne Moore’s award-winning performance in Still Alice tells the story of another woman who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 50. The film portrays the struggle that both a person living with the disease and their family face when the Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes at such an early age.

What is Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?

Early-onset Alzheimer’s causes the same symptoms as traditional Alzheimer’s disease. The primary difference is the age of diagnosis. Early-onset typically strikes adults in their 40s or 50s, sometimes even younger. Any occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease in someone under the age of 65 is classified as early-onset.

It often takes a while for an accurate diagnosis because people don’t associate common signs of Alzheimer’s with a young person. Even physicians may overlook the disease as a possible cause of the symptoms a younger patient is experiencing.

Another difference is that early-onset Alzheimer’s progresses more quickly than the late-onset form of the disease. Pat Summitt, former Tennessee women’s basketball coach, died of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She battled the disease for 5 years, a much shorter time span than the 8 to 10 years older adults who are diagnosed usually live. She was only 64 years old at the time of her death.

Heredity and Early-Onset Alzheimer’s

Much about all forms of Alzheimer’s disease continues to baffle scientists, though many believe early-onset has a genetic link. Research shows that inheriting genes for Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t mean you are certain to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s. However, those who have the genetic mutations for the disease are at greater risk. Fortunately, early-onset is rare.

Symptoms May First Appear at Work

Julianne Moore noted, in an interview she gave to promote the movie, that when she was doing her research for the role of Alice, she discovered symptoms are often noticed at work first. Her character was a linguistics professor. Like B. Smith, Alice lost her train of thought while giving an important speech.

Other individuals Moore spoke with during her research confirmed this. A Spanish teacher, for example, began to write backwards on the board during class. This symptom is a combination of several of the 10 early signs of Alzheimer’s—primarily trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.

If you or someone in your life has recently been diagnosed, you might be searching for information and answers. What to Do after a Diagnosis of Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease offers useful advice for figuring out what to do next.


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