What are the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that typically starts in later life. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease occurs before the age of 65 years.
Alzheimer’s disease causes memory problems and a variety of related symptoms. It is a progressive condition, which means that the symptoms will get worse over time. It is the most common type of dementia.
Experts believe that early onset Alzheimer’s disease accounts for fewer than 10% of all cases. It usually results from an inherited genetic feature. It most often appears when a person is in their 40s or 50s, but it can start in a person in their 30s.
There is currently no cure, but treatment may help manage the symptoms and slow the progression of the condition.
In this article, we discuss the symptoms, causes, and treatment options associated with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Signs and symptoms
The main symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss, but other changes can occur. The symptoms can also resemble those of other types of dementia, and other conditions can cause similar symptoms.
The following are some common symptoms.
1. Memory loss that impedes daily activities
The most noticeable symptom of Alzheimer’s disease is often memory loss. A person may start forgetting messages or recent events in a way that is unusual for them. They may repeat questions, having forgotten either the answer or the fact that they already asked.
It is not uncommon for people to forget things as they get older, but with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, this happens earlier in life, occurs more often, and seems out of character.
2. Difficulty completing everyday tasks
The person could have difficulty completing an otherwise familiar task. For example, they may find it hard to:
- get to a grocery store, restaurant, or place of employment
- follow the rules of a familiar game
- prepare a simple meal
Sometimes, people need help with new or unfamiliar things as they get older, such as the settings on a new phone. However, this does not necessarily indicate a problem.
By contrast, if the person has used the same phone for years and suddenly cannot remember how to make a phone call, they may be experiencing Alzheimer’s disease-related memory loss.
3. Problem-solving or planning difficulties
The person may find that they have difficulty following directions, solving problems, and focusing. For example, they could find it difficult to:
- follow a recipe
- follow directions on a product
- keep track of monthly bills or expenses
Some people often have problems like these, but if they start to happen when they did not happen before, it could indicate early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Problems with vision and spatial awareness
Alzheimer’s disease can sometimes cause vision problems, making it difficult for people to judge distances between objects. The person may find it hard to distinguish contrast and colors or judge speed or distance.
These vision problems combined can affect the person’s ability to drive.
Typical aging also affects eyesight, so it is essential to have regular checkups with an eye doctor.
5. Confusion about location and time
The person may experience confusion about places or times. They could have difficulty keeping track of seasons, months, or times of day.
They may become confused in an unfamiliar place. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, they could feel confused in familiar places or question how they got there. They may also start to wander and get lost.
6. Frequently misplacing items and not being able to retrace steps
Most people will lose items at some time, but they are usually able to locate them again by searching in logical locations and retracing their steps.
However, someone with Alzheimer’s disease may forget where they placed an item, especially if they put it in an unusual place. They may also be unable to retrace their steps to find the missing item. This can be distressing and cause the person to believe that someone is stealing from them.
7. Problems writing or speaking
The person may also have difficulty with words and communication. They could find it hard to follow or contribute to a conversation, or they may repeat themselves. The person may also have difficulty writing down their thoughts.
They could stop in the middle of a conversation, unable to figure out what to say next. They may also struggle to find the right word, or label things incorrectly.
It is not uncommon for people to occasionally struggle to find the right word. Typically, they eventually remember it and do not experience the problem frequently.
8. Symptoms of reduced judgment
The person could show a change in their ability to make good decisions. For example, they may start:
- spending a long time doing unnecessary tasks
- showing inattention to personal grooming, including washing
- putting things away in unexpected places, such as storing keys in the refrigerator
9. Mood or personality changes
Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may start to experience a change in mood. They can feel irritable, confused, anxious, or depressed. They may also lose interest in things they used to enjoy.
They could become frustrated with their symptoms or feel unable to understand the changes taking place. This may present as aggression or irritability toward others.
10. Stepping away from social or work activities
As Alzheimer’s disease develops, the person may also stop participating in the social or work activities they used to enjoy.
Learn more about the behavioral differences between Alzheimer’s and typical aging below:
|Memory loss||Forgetting things and repeating questions in a way that is unusual||Slowly becoming more forgetful|
|Completing tasks||Difficulty completing familiar tasks such as buying groceries or preparing food||Potentially needing help with new or unfamiliar things such as new technology|
|Problem-solving||Difficulty following instructions such as a new recipe or keeping track of bills||Being a little slower to react to things or juggle multiple tasks|
|Vision||Problems with vision and spatial awareness||Decreasing clarity of vision that may make it harder to distinguish shapes from a distance|
|Timekeeping||Difficulty keeping track of what day it is and becoming confused in an unfamiliar place||Forgetting the reason for entering a room before remembering again|
|Misplacing items||Misplacing items in unusual places and struggling to retrace steps||Momentarily misplacing items before remembering where to find them|
|Communication||Losing track of conversations, repeating sentences, and struggling to write down thoughts||Occasionally struggling to find the right word or needing to concentrate harder to keep up with conversation|
|Decision making||Spending a long time doing unnecessary tasks and neglecting personal grooming||Being a little slower in decision making|
|Mood changes||Experiencing low moods and feelings of irritableness, anxiety, confusion, and depression||Sometimes feeling weary or becoming irritable when there is disruption to a routine|
|Socializing||No longer participating in social activities that previously brought enjoyment||Sometimes feeling tired and worn out by social interactions|
If a person experiences one or more of the symptoms above, they should speak with a doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis might help slow the progression of the condition.
There is currently no definitive test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, so a doctor will base the diagnosis on the observable symptoms. They may try:
- asking the person some questions, such as where they live, and assessing the responses
- talking with family members to find out what behaviors the person is showing
- considering the person’s personal and family medical history
- doing some tests to rule out other possible causes, such as blood tests and brain imaging
Early onset Alzheimer’s disease most likely stems from genetic factors, according to Genetics Home Reference.
Some people are born with genetic changes in specific genes and develop early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease. The changes cause the brain to produce toxic proteins that build up in the brain, forming clumps known as amyloid plaques.
The genes pass from one generation to the next in an autosomal dominant pattern, which means that a person only needs to inherit one copy of the altered gene from a parent to develop the condition. Often, the parent has the same condition.
Others do not have these changes, and it is unknown why some people develop the condition, but other genes may be involved.
Treatment focuses on managing the symptoms as there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Treatment options may include:
- medications to help with memory loss and possibly slow the progression of the condition
- treatments for insomnia
- behavioral therapy to make life easier for the individual and their loved ones or caregivers
- counseling or medications to help manage depression or anxiety
- cognitive stimulation therapy, which may help with memory, speech, and problem solving
- support for living independently
Researchers are still looking for better treatment options.
Supporting a loved one
Individuals can support a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease in many different ways. For example, they can try:
- learning about Alzheimer’s disease for a better understanding of the person’s experience
- conversing with the person and participating in activities that both parties enjoy
- offering practical help, such as preparing meals or driving them to appointments
- connecting with other people through support networks
- remembering that this is still the same person
- asking the person how they are
- discussing the changing relationship with a counselor or another trusted person
Most people with Alzheimer’s disease can expect to live another 8–10 years after diagnosis, but the outlook ranges by 1–25 years. It will depend partly on the person’s age at diagnosis, with younger people usually surviving longer.
The cause of death is often pneumonia, malnutrition, or wasting of the body.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but treatment can help manage the symptoms.
The risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease increases with age, but a person with a family history of the condition may have a higher risk of developing it.
Anyone who suspects that they or a loved one is developing Alzheimer’s disease should speak with a doctor.