Recently, a change in federal law enabled patients with early-onset Alzheimer's to receive Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) and supplemental security income (SSI) more easily, Arvanitakis said.
"There used to be significant roadblocks," she said. "I remember five, 10 years ago trying to help my patients get on disability being told, 'What proof do you have they have Alzheimer's disease?' It was hard for me to convince them it was true."
Because it's relatively uncommon, people in their 40s and 50s with Alzheimer's can have difficulty getting a diagnosis. Apathy and loss of interest in things once enjoyed can be one symptom of Alzheimer's. But that's sometimes mistaken for depression, Arvanitakis said.
Several gene mutations are believed to contribute to Alzheimer's in younger people, and early-onset Alzheimer's can run in families that have a hereditary component. But for other people, what causes Alzheimer's is unknown, experts said.
In addition to having a close family member such as a mother, father or sibling with early-onset Alzheimer's, having a major depressive episode as an adult also appears associated with going on to develop Alzheimer's, Kennedy said. Many people with Down syndrome also eventually develop the disease.
There are no medications that can slow or reverse the underlying biological processes that lead to damage in the brain. But like older people, younger people can benefit from certain drugs that boost levels of a neurotransmitter in the brain that is important for forming memories, Arvanitakis said.
Those who fare the best tend to be those who have a strong support system of family and friends, she said.
High blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, heart rhythm abnormalities and high cholesterol can reduce blood flow to the brain and lead to "vascular dementia," another form of progressive decline in memory and thinking skills, Kennedy sa
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