Early-onset Alzheimer’s

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Being at risk for Alzheimer’s is scary, especially as patients hit their 60’s and 70’s.  Sometimes patients fear the disease at an even earlier age, which is usually due to their family history.  Cindy was one such patient, whom had a genetic disposition towards early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which occurs in people age 30 to 60.  At the age of 53 Cindy started developing symptoms of concern, which lead her to my office.

Cindy had a valid reason to live in fear of developing Alzheimer’s.  Alzheimer’s disease is the only cause of death among the top 10 (it’s currently ranked No. 6) in the United States that can’t be prevented, cured or slowed down. Early diagnosis of the disease is key in helping patients live better day-to-day.  Of all the people who have Alzheimer’s disease, only about 5 percent develop symptoms before age 65.  In total more than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s today, with another person developing the disease every 68 seconds.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s often runs in families, in which a parent or grandparent developed the disease at an earlier than normal age.  According to the Mayo Clinic, a significant proportion of early-onset Alzheimer’s is linked to three genes.  These three genes are different from the APOE gene — the gene that can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s in general. The genetic path of inheritance is much stronger in early-onset Alzheimer’s. If you have a genetic mutation in one of those three genes — the APP, PSEN 1 or PSEN 2 — it would be common for you to develop Alzheimer’s before age 65.

The most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s is memory loss.  In Cindy’s case she had forgotten one of her daughters birthdays and found herself leaving her keys inside her house more frequently then normal.  She also was having cognitive issues in terms of remembering how to balance her checkbook or DVR her favorite TV show.  Given her history I feared the likelihood that she was in fact developing early-onset Alzheimer’s, in which I sent her for testing for the APOE gene.

Although a blood test can identify which APOE alleles a person has, it cannot predict who will or will not develop Alzheimer’s disease. It is unlikely that genetic testing will ever be able to predict the disease with 100 percent accuracy because too many other factors may influence its development and progression.  However it can give some indication that the disease is likely, which was the case with Cindy.

By 2050, the number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to triple.  Taking note of unusual memory issues should be taken seriously, as there is the rare chance that Alzheimer’s can develop as early as 30 years old.  As with any disease, catching it at the earlier stages is always important to start off a treatment plan.