If you thought only the elderly were at risk for developing Alzheimer's disease, consider that more than 200,000 individuals in the United States suffer from what is called early-onset, or younger-onset, Alzheimer's. In fact, nearly 4 percent of the 5.4 million Americans suffering from the debilitating, progressive disease have this early-onset form. It's considered early-onset when it develops before the age of 65, and many patients are in their 40s and 50s.

Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent it, although there are treatments to slow its progress, says Maria Carney, MD, director of community-based geriatrics at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, NY. "The good news is that there's a lot of research going on in this area so the future may hold more effective treatment options," Carney says. "There are medications a person can take that may be helpful."

Certain factors make it more likely that you may develop the early-onset Alzheimer's, says Barbara Vogel, program coordinator for the Neuwith Memory Disorder Program at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, NY. "It tends to run in families," she explains. "If your parent or grandparent had it, you are more likely to get it." (She stresses that this genetic predisposition is for young-onset Alzheimer's only.)

While tests are available that will tell you if you are at a higher than average risk for getting any form of Alzheimer's, getting bad news may not be worth it since you can't really do anything about it. "If I don't have a treatment with significant benefit to offer you, I don't know that I want you to walk around under a cloud knowing that you may develop Alzheimer's," Vogel says.

Finding out if you do in fact have early-onset Alzheimer's can be tricky. "Many people have mild cognitive impairment, mild memory problems that are not affecting their daily function," Carney says. "It's a gray area. It may turn into Alzheimer's or it may not." Memory issues also may be caused by other factors such as depression, drug interactions, thyroid problems, and even certain vitamin deficiencies. When caused by a treatable condition, the memory problems can be reversed.

If an individual is experiencing memory impairment, it's important to see the doctor for a complete medical assessment. A medical history, mental status testing, a physical and a neurological exam, and brain imaging will be performed.

If it turns out that you do have Alzheimer's, you will have the chance to take advantage of care and support services, for one thing. You also may be offered medications, and the chance to participate in clinical drug trials. Individuals with Alzheimer's have a higher rate of depression, anxiety, and agitation, Carney says. Taking advantage of appropriate medications may help allay some of these feelings, she explains.

Maria Carney, MD reviewed this article.


"Younger/early onset Alzheimer's and dementia." Alzheimer's Association


Risk factors for Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's Association.