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Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia that destroys brain cells, reduces memory and brain function and eventually results in death. Early onset Alzheimer's refers to the occurrence of the disease in patients under 65 years of age. According to some statistics, only about 5-10% of Alzheimer's patients develop the disease before 65, though sometimes the condition is discovered at a considerably younger age. For both the patient and his or her family, a diagnosis of this type can lead to serious changes in both lifestyle and future planning.
The disease was first formally described in 1906 by doctor Aloysius Alzheimer, who performed extensive research and performed an autopsy on a 51-year old woman who died from the condition. Alzheimer discovered a wide variety of brain abnormalities in the patient, including signs that the outer layer of the cortex had shrunk, and the appearance of a plaque-like substance throughout the brain. With the rise of genetic science in the 20th century, scientists have discovered that the occurrence of the disease is frequently linked to certain genes and may have hereditary components. According to many health experts, early onset Alzheimer's frequently occurs in families with a history of the condition.
The progression of early onset Alzheimer's can be highly individualized and is frequently misdiagnosed, since the patients are generally much younger than most Alzheimer's patients. Early signs include an increase of apathy and focusing ability, difficulty remembering meaning of words, and other symptoms of memory loss. Since Alzheimer's cannot be confirmed until after death, during an autopsy, diagnosis usually involves a series of tests that may indicate the presence of the condition. This may include mental and verbal tests as well as brain scans, computed tomography or magnetic resonance imagery (CT and MRI) tests, and family medical history.
After the initial onset of the condition, symptoms will progressively increase, affecting most areas of the brain. Language abilities may become severely reduced, and short-term memory dissipates. In some cases, a patient's oldest memories remain perfectly intact while newer concepts and memories are destroyed. Personality may alter, and a general apathy may be present throughout.
Although the physical symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's are obviously bleak, the emotional distress of a young person diagnosed with the condition may present even greater problems. Alzheimer's patients frequently have a high level of depression, but certain factors may make the condition even more devastating to young patients. Some diagnosed with the condition may still have children at home to care for and a family to provide for, causing feelings of intense guilt and frustration. Relationships with romantic partners may dissolve, as a spouse may not be willing or able to perform the duties of a caretaker.
There is no cure for early onset Alzheimer's, though many doctors and scientists are hopeful that genetic research may one day provide help. Some medications have been developed that can help diminish symptoms, though they cannot stop the progression of the disease. Alzheimer's patients and loved ones may also find some benefit from therapy to help them prepare and discuss the road ahead.