Reality Check: Alzheimer’s Can Hit People in their 40s (yes, really)

By now, most of us have experienced the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease as we’ve watched our loved ones mentally slip away from who they once were.

To call the experience a painful one is a major understatement.

For most of us, our experience with the disease involves elderly grandparents. The shocking reality, however, is that Alzheimer’s can affect people as young as in their 40s and 50s (yes, really). While rare, 16, 000 Canadians under the age of 65 are living with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Compounding the situation is the fact that many of these people were still working at the time of diagnosis, have dependent children or parents living at home and are still young-looking and physically fit.

It’s safe to say that this set is definitely not the typical face of Alzheimer’s.

This reality is a tough pill to swallow for those of us who are closer to middle age than we are to our now distant university days. It’s also the reason why the emotional 2015 film Still Alice is a difficult watch for the best of us (it’s maybe not a great choice for the hypochondriacs out there).

One of the most frustrating parts about early-onset dementia is that it’s often misdiagnosed or mistaken for something else. If you keep forgetting deadlines at work, lose your words, miss meetings and appear scattered, for example, coworkers may assume that you’re disengaged from the job or too distracted to do it properly. Things like forgetfulness and being scattered can be attributed to everything from stress and depression, to being overwhelmed. It doesn’t take long before early onset Alzheimer’s could cost you your job. Not to mention, because it’s so rare, people who suffer are often isolated, as they find themselves decades younger than others in support groups and no longer able to connect with their friends and family the way they once did.

While the cause of early-onset Alzheimer’s is not known, researchers have found that it has been linked to three genes: APP, PSEN 1, and PSEN 2. According to the Mayo Clinic, these genes account for 60 to 70 per cent of early-onset cases. A mutation of one of these genes means a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s before the age of 65.

The reality is that – even if they’re not affected directly by Alzheimer’s in the next decade – many will experience the disease with their parents, accompanied by a major role reversal as they become caregivers and their parents become dependents. Sadly, we are a ways away from finding a cure and Alzheimer’s rates are skyrocketing.

Making things even worse is the fact that nobody seems to be able to agree on potential risk factors for the disease. Historically, it seems that researchers have pointed fingers at, well, pretty much everything.

While research has produced no proven ways to fight off Alzheimer’s, a new report from the British journal Lancet has revealed some key risks that begin in childhood. Avoiding these risks could delay or prevent about one third of dementia cases globally, according to the Lancet-appointed panel of researchers. The panel created a model of dementia risks throughout life and estimates that about 35 per cent of dementia cases are all attributable to nine risk factors. Each factor is associated with lifestyle factors that could make the brain more susceptible to problems with memory and thinking as we age.

The good news is that these risk factors involve things that people could potentially still change. The recommendations include ensuring a good education; avoiding high blood pressure, obesity and smoking; managing diabetes, depression and age-related hearing loss; staying physically active; and staying socially engaged in old age. The theory is that these factors combined play a role in whether your brain is strong enough to withstand years of undetected damage that will eventually lead to Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s has also been linked to everything from snoring, poor sleep habits and insomnia, to diet, genetics, socioeconomic status, traumatic life events and – most recently – rust deposits from iron on the brain. Last month, the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in particular highlighted the impact of three risk genes, lack of sleep and the prevalence of stressful events like the death of a loved one, divorce and abuse that age the brain.

The good news is we’re trying, and new Alzheimer’s-related research seems to emerge weekly. Increasingly, researchers point to the possibility of a vaccine that could one day prevent the disease. At AAIC, one of the biggest announcements of the conference was that, in the next five years, nearly three-dozen new Alzheimer’s medications will be introduced to the market. This is overdue; there hasn’t been a new medication to treat the disease on the market in the US since 2003.

Whatever the cause, there is no denying the severity of the disease and the toll it takes on its victims and their loved ones.

Here’s to hoping we can one day forget about the disease once and for all. No pun intended.