We all know the signs of Alzheimer’s to watch for in our older loved ones — poor short-term memory, trouble with language or difficulty with familiar tasks.
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But when Alzheimer’s strikes adults 65 or younger — often called early-onset, but more accurately young-onset — the initial signs are often unexpected.
“Younger people can have memory problems, but in many cases it’s difficulty with visual and spatial perception,” said Brian Appleby, MD, who specializes in young-onset Alzheimer’s. “They have problems judging things in space — tripping over curbs, knocking things over or trouble with left-right orientation.”
That’s why many early-onset Alzheimer’s sufferers head first to an eye doctor and are surprised when their vision checks out perfectly. Or they think first of depression or stress to explain their puzzling symptoms.
Getting the right diagnosis requires knowing the right signs to look for in middle-aged adults, and there are advantages to being diagnosed early.
Early diagnosis pays
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are currently about 5.2 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, and about 4 percent of those are younger than 65. Many are in their 40s and 50s.
Early diagnosis of young-onset Alzheimer’s disease is important for getting access to the care you need, but there’s also a benefit to your financial security. This diagnosis provides access to disability payments through the Social Security Administration’s Compassionate Allowances program.
“The conditions on the Compassionate Allowances list don’t require the two-year waiting period that disability normally requires,” says Dr. Appleby. “Since these are usually people who are still working, it’s crucial that they get that income.”
Possibility of prevention, delay
Young-onset Alzheimer’s is much more likely to be genetic than older-onset. That’s why people who have it often receive genetic testing, as do their family members.
Because these adults are typically healthier than their older counterparts, they are often able to maintain their independence longer in the early and middle stages of the disease.
Even though there is no treatment and no cure for young-onset Alzheimer’s, people with the disease can take steps to slow its progression, especially in its early stages.
“Maintaining good mid-life health is one of the most important modifiable things you can do to keep your brain healthy,” says Dr. Appleby. “Keep your heart healthy, maintain active social engagement and keep cognitively active.”
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