Dementia is a general term for an overall decline in cognitive function that includes Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies.
As the disease progresses it causes memory, language, and reasoning skills to deteriorate. Although typically associated with adults over the age of 65, approximately 5% of patients develop an early-onset form of dementia as early as their 30s, 40s, or 50s.
Risk Factors for Early-Onset Dementia
Approximately 12% of cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s are due to a rare genetic mutation leading to an inherited form of the disease called familial Alzheimer’s. Individuals with Down’s syndrome are also more likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s since the chromosome associated with the syndrome also carries the gene for amyloid (amyloid causes the damaging plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients).
A small percentage of early-onset dementia cases can be linked to a genetic form of vascular dementia or damage to the frontal lobes of the brain that control language, emotions, and behavior.
Younger people are believed to develop rarer forms of dementia at a much higher rate than older adults. As many as 25% of early-onset dementia cases are believed to be due to rarer causes, including degenerative neurological conditions like Huntington’s disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Symptoms of Early-Onset Dementia
The specific presentation of dementia symptoms and the rate of progression of the disease are unique to each individual. On the other hand, patients with early-onset dementia are more likely to experience atypical forms of the disease. In older adults, memory loss is often the first noticeable symptom of dementia. In younger individuals, the initial symptoms may include language difficulties, vision changes, and personality or behavioral changes. As the damage to the brain increases, the symptoms will worsen and may include:
- A lack of orientation to time, place, or person
- Poor judgment and increased memory loss
- Inappropriate interactions or outbursts
- An inability to concentrate and focus on everyday tasks
- Withdrawal from work and social situations
Diagnosing Early-Onset Dementia
Diagnosing dementia in younger people is often more difficult than in older adults. There is a general lack of awareness among medical practitioners about early-onset dementia. The fact that dementia typically presents differently in young people may lead a doctor to attribute the symptoms to other causes, such as stress, depression, anxiety, or even hormonal changes related to menopause.
The assessment and diagnosis of early-onset dementia typically involve a combination of the following:
- Tests of cognitive ability, daily functioning, and behavior
- Brain scans
- Blood or other laboratory tests to rule out other health conditions
- A physical exam and complete medical history
The Impact of Early-Onset Dementia
While the effects of dementia are devastating at any age, younger individuals do face additional challenges in dealing with their condition. Those affected by early-onset dementia are more likely to still be in the workforce, have dependent children, and mortgages or other significant financial commitments.
The disease may force them to stop working and become financially and physically dependent on others. This may lead to decreased self-esteem and depression as they struggle to cope with losing skills at a young age. There also tends to be a lack of age-appropriate support services for those suffering from early-onset dementia.
Currently, there is no cure for dementia. However, certain lifestyles and diets can help increase the odds of keeping dementia at bay, as well as keeping your brain engaged and stimulated, including a myriad of cognitive exercises, such as the SMART Brain Aging program (such cognitive programs are more effective when the symptoms are caught early and can help to slow the progress of dementia in patients).