Early-onset dementia (EOD) refers to those cases of dementia where symptoms start to appear before the age of 65, and can sometimes show up for people as early as their 30's, 40's, or 50's. Early-onset dementia is rare, and affects less than 10% of people who have Alzheimer’s, according to the National Institute of Aging. Early-onset dementia in older people can often be misdiagnosed as depression or anxiety, so it’s important to know what you should look out for if you think that you or your loved one might have signs of this condition. Although early-onset dementia cannot currently be cured, you may be able to manage it or prevent it’s progression and reduce cognitive decline if you know what signs to look out for. In this post, we will talk about all of those things – from what early-onset dementia actually is, what the signs are of EOD, to how it affects people, and the treatment and prevention options available.
Early diagnosis is important because there are lifestyle recommendations and treatments available when diagnosed early—in contrast, late diagnosis means more severe symptoms with fewer treatment options.
11 Most Common Signs and Symptoms of Early-Onset Dementia
- Memory Loss: Early-onset dementia patients often experience difficulty in retaining new information or recalling events from the past - especially those of relatively recent occurrence. They can oftentimes forget important dates or appointments and may repeat the same word or phrase over and over. You may also notice that they rely on external sources to remember information, like a planner, a smartphone, or a family member. Although early memory loss can be one of the first signs that you may have dementia, this can also just be part of the natural aging process or a result of a stressful life event, alcohol use, drug use, or a lack of sleep.
- Difficulty with Spatial Skills: Early on, patients may have trouble navigating spaces, identifying objects they see around them, and calculating the distance between objects. They may have trouble with activities that require these skills, like parking a car, using stairs, picking up objects, or other tasks of that nature. Although having difficulty with spatial skills is a sign of EOD, it does not always mean you have it. It's completely normal to occasionally miss a step while walking, drop things, or get in a fender bender. It's when you notice these things are happening more frequently than they should that you should take notice and make an appointment with your primary care physician as this may be more than just a normal part of aging.
- Difficulty speaking or finding words: Early-onset dementia patients may have trouble finding the right word or putting together sentences when speaking. They may repeat the same story or word, or become stuck in a single task and not be able to move on without help. It's important you always try to remain patient and help whenever possible as this can be a frustrating time for everyone involved.
- Difficulty with Concentration: Early-onset dementia patients may lose track of conversations they’re having as well as what is going on around them. They may jump around from one topic to the next, or find it difficult to focus on what they’re doing. They may also have trouble with tasks that require concentration, such as chores and daily activities. It's important to note that having trouble concentrating is not always an early sign of dementia. Take note of whether your attention span has been decreasing over time, or if this has always been something you have struggled with. If you have a condition like ADD, for example, this may be due to that and not EOD.
- Difficulty Recognizing Familiar Faces or Familiar Places: People with early-onset dementia may begin to have trouble recognizing familiar faces and places—which can lead to bouts of confusion and fear.
- Loss of Interest in Activities: Early on, early-onset dementia patients will lose interest in activities that they used to enjoy and might not feel like doing anything at all. They may not want to put forth the effort of activities if they aren't able to remember how to do them, or are having trouble completing the activities.
- Difficulty with Planning and Organizing: Early on in dementia, patients will become increasingly less able to make plans for themselves—or organize their own time effectively. They may have difficulty balancing a checkbook or understanding instructions when cooking.
- Changes in Mood and Personality: Early-onset dementia patients may have trouble controlling their moods or emotions as the disease progresses. They could become stressed out more easily than usual or find themselves crying for no good reason at all or having intense mood swings—which can be upsetting both for them and for those around them. Oftentimes, these behavior and personality changes are what prompt loved ones to reach out for help.
- Difficulty with Abstract Thinking: Individuals with early-onset dementia may find it harder to process abstract concepts or hypothetical questions, which could make conversations difficult. Examples of abstract thinking are using humor, using certain figures of speech, solving problems, analyzing situations, etc. They may also struggle with simple arithmetic and other cognitive tasks that require logical reasoning skills.
- Problems with Poor Judgment: People with Early-onset dementia may make decisions that seem out of character or even risky for them, such as going to a secluded area alone. Their poor judgment could be dangerous and result in an accident if they aren’t supervised by a caregiver who can help keep them safe from harm. If you have a loved one who has been wandering off and putting themselves in harm's way, please read our other post on how to stop wandering in those with dementia.
- Inability to Carry Out Activities of Daily Life: Early-onset dementia will often cause a person to become more forgetful and struggle with their daily tasks, such as grocery shopping. This means that they might not buy the right items or even be able to get it all in one trip if they have problems returning home.
What are the Most Common Causes of Early-Onset Dementia?
Early-onset dementia is usually caused by a condition or injury that has damaged the brain or nervous system. There are several things that can cause early-onset dementia, including:
- Alzheimer's Disease: this is the leading cause of EOD.
- Age: age is one of the leading causes of early-onset dementia. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease is most common in people who are 65 or older, although it can happen at any age.
- Stroke: stroke is responsible for about 15% of EOD cases, but having a stroke does not mean you will get EOD.
- HIV/AIDS: HIV, the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), has been found to affect brain function and cognition. People with HIV are more likely to develop Early Onset Alzheimer’s disease than individuals without HIV.
- Family history: having a family history of dementia can make you more susceptible to EOD.
- Hormones: hormone replacement therapy may increase the risk of developing Early-Onset Dementia in women who take it to relieve menopausal symptoms.
- Cigarette Smoking: smoking more than 15 cigarettes per day increases the chances of getting Early-Onset Dementia.
- Stress: stress has been shown to increase the risk of Early Onset Dementia. Some research even suggests that chronic tension and anxiety can cause neurons (brain cells) in the hippocampus, where memories are stored, to die prematurely or become damaged.
- Parkinson's Disease: Parkinson’s is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement and muscle control. Early-onset dementia caused by Parkinson’s is rare but possible, and people with Parkinson’s are more likely to develop Lewy body dementia (LBD).
- Huntington's Disease: a genetic disorder that causes uncontrolled
- Brain Damage: due to injury or a stroke, for example.
- Vascular dementia: where there is damage to blood vessels in the brain or to the brain itself. Early-onset vascular dementia is also rare but can occur if someone has had a series of small strokes over time, for example.
- Multiple Sclerosis: early onset MS causes EOD in about one in five people with this condition, usually between 20 and 40 years old.
- LBD (Lewy Body Dementia): this type of dementia occurs when an indi- vidual has deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain. Early-onset LBD is relatively rare and occurs when someone develops dementia at between 40 to 60 years old.
- Frontotemporal Dementia: occurs when someone has progressive damage to the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes. Early-onset frontotemporal dementia occurs at between 40 and 65 years old, although it is rare that anyone under 30 develops this type of dementia.
How to Prevent Early-Onset Dementia
Although getting dementia may be out of your control, there are certain things you can do to minimize your risk of developing dementia, and increase your quality of life as well. These include:
- Eating a healthy diet rich in fruit and vegetables
- Getting regular exercise
- Keeping mentally active by learning new things or taking classes
- Stay socially connected by joining clubs and organizations that you enjoy being part of.
- Don't smoke
- Reduce or stop drinking alcohol
- Stay at a healthy weight
- Manage chronic conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease
- If you have a family history of dementia or Alzheimer's Disease, get tested early
What to Do if You Think You May Have Dementia
If you start noticing signs and symptoms of dementia, it’s important to talk to your doctor right away. Early diagnosis and treatment can make a difference in the course of the disease.
People with dementia may find it difficult to communicate, so encourage them to speak up when something is wrong or how they feel about their care needs changing.
How to Care for Someone with Dementia
Once diagnosed, you may be overwhelmed with what to do next and how you are going to care for your loved one. Oftentimes family members do not have the time , skills, or other resources to provide full-time care for a person with dementia. Contact Senior Helpers Orlando to have a consultation and we can schedule a time to meet with you and figure out a care plan and how to best care for your loved one. We offer Dementia and Alzheimer's care services, and can help you decide on whether home care is right for you.