Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer’s is a disease that causes dementia. It is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for about two-thirds of cases in older people.

Although often thought of as a disease of older people, around 4% of people with Alzheimer’s are under 65.

This is called early-onset or young-onset Alzheimer’s. It usually affects people in their 40s, 50s and early 60s.

If you are worried about yourself or someone else who is showing symptoms of dementia, talk to your GP. They will be able to rule out other health issues such as depression or anxiety which may cause similar symptoms in younger people. They will also be able to refer you to a specialist for other tests if necessary.

While some symptoms can be similar to those of late-onset Alzheimer’s, the disease can also reveal itself in more unusual ways in younger people. This can make it more difficult for people, families and doctors to recognise.

Symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s can include:

  • Memory problems which interfere with everyday life. This may include forgetting messages or recent events which would normally be remembered, or repeating questions.
  • Confusion or disorientation. People may become confused in unfamiliar situations and lose a sense of place and time.
  • Changes in personality and behaviour. These may be subtle at first and could include apathy, depression or loss of confidence.
  • Language problems – difficulty finding the right words and communicating. This may sometimes be called aphasia.
  • Visual problems – people can have difficulty recognising words and objects and judging speed or distance. When visual problems are a major symptom, the disease may be called posterior cortical atrophy.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, which means that symptoms get worse over time.

The impact of early-onset Alzheimer’s can be significant – people are often working and may have young families. For details of organisations that can offer support and advice, visit the caring for someone with dementia section of our website. You can also ask your doctor.

Can I inherit early-onset Alzheimer’s?

In most cases the answer is no. Inherited or ‘familial’ forms of Alzheimer’s are very rare.

Several genes have been found that play a role in the development of rare familial Alzheimer’s. Mistakes in these genes (called mutations) can cause a build-up of a toxic protein called amyloid in the brain. If someone has a strong family history of Alzheimer’s at a young age, genetic testing may be suggested and genetic counselling may be offered to close relatives.

In the vast majority of cases, the cause is still unclear. It is likely to be a combination of our age, lifestyle and genetic make-up.

Will early-onset Alzheimer’s progress faster?

It is difficult to know. There is some evidence that early-onset Alzheimer’s may progress faster and more aggressively, but experts are unsure whether this is conclusive. Every person’s experience is different and there can be a huge amount of variability in people’s response to the disease. Difficulties with diagnosis may mean that people are diagnosed later, making their progression seem faster. Research into better methods of detection will help to improve early diagnosis.

Is there research underway to learn more about early-onset Alzheimer’s?

There is still a lot to learn about early-onset Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s Research UK has funded over £3.1 million of pioneering research into the condition. Several studies are looking at the genetics of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Another is working with people with the condition to follow their health over several years. Our studies are helping to increase understanding of the condition, improve diagnosis and develop potential new treatments.

This information was updated in March 2016 and is due for review in March 2018. Please contact us if you would like a version with references.

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