Dementia is an umbrella term for a group of conditions that cause a progressive decline of mental function. Symptoms of dementia include loss of memory, intellect, and emotional intelligence. We usually associate dementia with age; in fact, age is one of the chief risk factors of dementia.
But what happens when dementia develops in someone who’s not so old? That’s what the medical community calls “younger-onset dementia.”
Younger Onset Dementia
The official definition of younger-onset dementia is dementia in people under 65 years old. Though this is an arbitrary age, doctors use it as a benchmark in deciding how to categorize the illness.
About 250,000 Americans have early-onset dementia—that means a quarter of a million people received a dementia diagnosis in their 50s, 40s, or even rarely in their 30s. Since dementia in those age groups is so uncommon, doctors can miss the signs as they struggle for a diagnosis.
How Early Onset Dementia Differs from Older Onset
There are several key differences in early onset dementia:
• Effect of the diagnosis
A dementia diagnosis is never easy, regardless of the patient’s age. But when dementia appears at an earlier stage of life, it usually disrupts more than a nice retirement.
Most Americans are physically and socially active at 50 or 60 at a much higher rate than those at 70, 80, or 90. Someone with early onset dementia is more likely to be in the middle of a successful career, raising children, caregiving to an elderly parent, or paying off a mortgage. The symptoms and eventual diagnosis of dementia come as a rude interruption during one of the busiest periods in a person’s life.
• Ease of diagnosis
In elderly people, dementia is a constant possibility. By contrast, doctors don’t expect to see dementia in younger patients. In addition, many of the dementias that specifically affect younger people are rare and difficult to recognize.
Diagnosing dementia in a younger person may be a taxing, months-long journey. However, the earlier the diagnosis, the more time there is for the younger person to arrange their finances, come to terms with their loss, and connect with their loved ones.
• Possible swifter progression
Some evidence suggests that dementia progresses at a more rapid pace in younger than in older people, but the link hasn’t been firmly established.
• Rarer conditions
As mentioned above, rare dementias are more common among younger people. Between 20 and 25 percent of people with early-onset dementia have a rare cause of the condition. This is a much higher proportion than in the older population.
Dealing with Younger Onset Dementia
Dementia is a terminal illness that robs the patient of their identity. For the younger person, who may have watched a loved one live through dementia, such a diagnosis is devastating.
A person with early-onset dementia will certainly feel a large amount of grief and loss, possibly mixed with worry about the future, anger or depression over their situation, or denial as to the severity of their illness.
Both the patient and their loved ones will benefit from education about the condition, and counseling to help with their intense emotions.
To learn more about early-onset dementia, visit the Alzheimer Association’s web page at alz.org.