Dementia, and particularly the type known as Alzheimer's disease, poses an immense challenge to the entire world. Globally, around 50 million people suffer from dementia and 10 million new cases emerge every year, as per data gathered by the World Health Organisation. World Alzheimer's Month is observed in September every year to raise awareness and World Alzheimer's Day, which is observed on 21 September, is the most important day of this global health month.
The theme for World Alzheimer's Day 2020 is "Let's talk about dementia", and talk we must because there is a lot about this neurodegenerative disease that a large part of the world is still unaware of. The best example is perhaps the fact that while dementia is often exclusively associated with old age, i.e. age above 60-65 years, young-onset dementia is a real and pressing challenge too.
What is young-onset dementia?
A study published in The Lancet Neurology in 2010 mentions that the high prevalence of dementia in the elderly worldwide can often overshadow the importance of young-onset dementia. Technically defined as dementia onset before the age of 65 years, young-onset dementia is also known as early-onset dementia and working-age dementia, and may have very different presentations in younger people. This is the reason why the study says that young-onset dementia poses a substantial diagnostic challenge but at the same time it can also provide important biological insights into how dementia presents differently in young and older people.
A degree of difference in symptoms
Another study in BMJ Open published in 2018 says that even after 15 years of studies highlighting young-onset dementia, the number of undiagnosed cases as high as 30 percent to 50 percent. This study goes on to mention that younger people with dementia are more likely to present with a wider variety of symptoms compared to older dementia patients. Memory loss and cognitive impairments, which are generally associated with dementia, may not present in young-onset dementia.
On the other hand, frontotemporal dementia " which younger people with dementia are more likely to suffer from " can initially show up as personality changes, and difficulties in movement, speech, coordination and balance. These are often mistaken to be symptoms of stress, depression or alcohol consumption in younger people and, therefore, a dementia diagnosis is not made. This study also indicates that young-onset dementia can lead to psychosocial limitations and isolation, which leads to further marginalisation and underdiagnosis of young people with dementia.
Going by this data, some of the more common symptoms of young-onset dementia may be:
- Personality and behavioural changes
- Changes in social functioning and relationship with others
- The difference in everyday activities, especially those related to planning, logical thinking, common sense or judgement
- Changes in mood similar to depression, anxiety or mood disorders
- Dip in concentration, decision-making and problem-solving abilities
Causes and treatment of young-onset dementia
Dementia UK, a non-profit focusing on dementia awareness, says that only 34 percent of young-onset dementia cases are caused by Alzheimer's disease (usually genetic), which is unlike dementia in the elderly where 60 percent cases are associated with Alzheimer's disease. Instead, the more common neurodegenerative causes of dementia among younger people are:
- Vascular dementia
- Frontotemporal dementia
- Korsakoff's syndrome
- Alcohol-related dementia
- Lewy bodies dementia
- Rare dementia forms associated with Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and Creutzfeld Jakob disease
The impact of dementia on a young person, their lives and those around them can be immense and often debilitating. Like dementia among the elderly, young-onset dementia cannot be cured, only managed. Getting a diagnosis, coming to terms with it and creating systems through which its progressive nature can be managed is essential because dementia is a long-term condition.
A young person with dementia not only needs specialist information and care but might also need to know if the risks of this disease are high for their children or siblings. Proper counselling and support regarding managing workplaces, relationships, peers, communities and everyday life activities is crucial for people with young-onset dementia.
For more information, read our article on Exercises and activities to prevent dementia.
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