Alice Howland was just 50 years old when she was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. You may have seen her story in the movie Still Alice. Julianne Moore plays the character Alice, a linguistics professor and mother of three grown children, who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The movie follows Alice and her family as her disease progresses.
What is Early-Onset Alzheimer’s?
According to the Mayo Clinic, early-onset Alzheimer’s is an uncommon form of dementia that strikes people younger than age 65. Of all the people who have Alzheimer’s disease, about 5 percent develop symptoms before age 65. Most people with early-onset Alzheimer’s will develop symptoms in their 40s and 50s.
Often, an early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis is not made because many health care providers or family members believe something else must be causing the symptoms. An accurate diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s is crucial for ruling out other potential issues and getting the most appropriate treatment.
How to Identify the Signs of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
The symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease are similar to many of the symptoms with late-onset Alzheimer’s. This ranges from personality changes to low energy, memory issues, mood swings, attention problems, and difficulty in finding the right words to say. One common distinction between the early and late-onset types is that early-onset Alzheimer’s patients tend to develop memory problems later in the progression of the disease. The memory loss may also be less severe.
10 Ways to Slow the Progression of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s
Although there is no currently known cure for Alzheimer’s, there is still much you can do if you or a loved one are diagnosed at an early age. According to Dr. Gad Marshall, Associate Medical Director of Clinical Trials at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, healthy habits may help ward off Alzheimer’s. There are several actions anyone can take to slow its progression while improving quality of life.
In addition to Dr. Marshall’s sensible advice, there is a range of other things you can do to prevent cognitive decline – personally, socially, and medically. An encouraging study by the UCLA Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and the Buck Institute for Research on Aging has suggested that memory loss in patients may be reversed, and improvements may be sustained. The study used a complex program involving changes in diet, brain stimulation, exercise, optimization of sleep, specific pharmaceuticals and vitamins, and additional efforts that affect brain chemistry. Try incorporating these findings into your life by trying these strategies:
1. Get regular exercise.
Getting regular physical exercise may help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s or slow its progression in people who have symptoms. Many physicians recommend 30 minutes of moderately vigorous aerobic exercise, three to four days per week.
2. Eat a Mediterranean diet.
A recent study showed that full or even partial adherence to a Mediterranean diet can help promote brain health. The Mediterranean diet includes fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, legumes and fish. You can also eat moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, and dairy, and drink moderate amounts of red wine. Red meat should be eaten only sparingly.
3. Get enough sleep.
Growing evidence suggests that getting enough sleep is linked to greater amyloid clearance from the brain. One of the characteristics of Alzheimer’s is the accumulation of amyloid plaques between nerve cells in the brain. Dr. Marshall recommends seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Try sleep tips like having a regular sleep schedule, reading a book to unwind or avoiding caffeine before bed.
4. Stay involved socially.
Remaining engaged with friends, family and business colleagues may lessen the burden which naturally accompanies the beginning phases of Alzheimer’s. To increase and maintain a sense of connection, focus on things and people that uplift you and encourage a sense of purpose. You can also grow a network of support outside of your inner circle of friendships. Reach out to your community, spread your wings and develop unexpected relationships.
5. Take charge.
When your head is reeling with an early-onset diagnosis, there’s a tendency to think, “it’s over…nothing really matters.” But that is far from the truth. There is a lot you can do to potentially slow down the progression of the disease. Yes, it’s true. There will be a time when you need to lean heavily on the help of others. But right now – today – if you are at the beginning of younger-onset Alzheimer’s, you might be surprised by what you can do.
6. Explore pharmaceutical approaches.
At this time, no medications are available that can reverse or cure early-onset Alzheimer’s. However, some patients find prescription medications can tamp down the symptoms. Options include Aricept ® (donepezil) and Namenda ® (memantine), along with Rivastigmine and Galantamine. There’s no guarantee these drug therapies will work, but some people with Alzheimer’s get symptomatic relief that lasts for years.
7. Join a support group.
Once you’re sure it’s early-onset Alzheimer’s and not something else, support groups can be helpful for patients as well as family. The Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline is a good place to start. Call (800) 272-3900 (TDD: 866-403-3073) for valuable advice and caring support. Visit alzconnected.org to meet others facing the disease so you can compare notes with other people who share your early-onset diagnosis.
8. Consider a clinical trial.
Since patients with early-onset can live with the disease for a long time, it might make sense to explore the option of entering a clinical trial. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, funding is not the biggest challenge for clinical researchers. Instead, finding trial participants is! If you or a loved one might be willing to take part in a clinical research study, contact the Alzheimer’s Association at (800) 272-3900 and press 1 to be connected with the clinical trials hotline.
9. Adjust the way you work.
People who are still in the workplace may explore how a work schedule can be adjusted to accommodate the condition. If the condition is more advanced, consider counseling that paves the way to early retirement.
10. Additional alternatives.
Some approaches that are not related to Alzheimer’s disease show progress in helping to slow down early-onset Alzheimer’s. This includes treatments for cardiovascular health and diabetes, antioxidant therapy, and cognitive learning programs. As Alzheimer’s research accelerates, new insights are coming to light all the time.
Financial Planning after an Early-Onset Alzheimer’s Diagnosis
When you or a loved one’s world is rocked from an early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis, it’s normal to feel sad, angry and paralyzed with fear. Things like financial planning typically get shoved to the back burner because they’re simply too painful to think about.
As challenging as it is, the reality is that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes with a high price tag. Plus, it’s better to begin planning while your loved one with a diagnosis is in an early stage and more likely to be able to participate in the decision-making process.
So, where to start? One obvious place to begin is with a family’s source of income. People with early-onset Alzheimer’s are often forced to modify their employment availability and as a result, they may even lose their job. How can families cope with income loss? Covering living expenses as well as the price of medical treatment can cause a strain on the family budget. Following a heart-to-heart conversation with loved ones, many families choose to seek advice from a financial advisor.
You’ll want to organize, review important documents, and create a realistic budget. Explore options for government programs along with insurance coverage, and consider if any low-cost or free community services are available. In addition to a financial advisor, you may want to seek advice from an attorney who specializes in elder law. An attorney can help you deal with matters like estate planning and key legal documents.
Until a cure for early-onset Alzheimer’s is found, it’s a great idea to do what we can to slow down the progression. Do what you can to exercise regularly, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep. Try exploring medical options, support groups and alternative treatments. While these aren’t proven to prevent or slow the disease, they are all great ways to promote overall brain health.