Mention Alzheimer’s’ Disease and most people will think of an older person with dementia. But not everyone with dementia is over the age of 65.
There are a number of people diagnosed around the world every year with what is known as early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The majority of these people are in their mid forties and fifties. In what many would consider their prime of life. They account for 5-10% of all people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
But what if you were in your early thirties?
Could you possibly contemplate what it would be like to be told at the age of 31 or 32 that you had Alzheimer’s disease?
A couple of days ago I watched a short TV segment which told the story of two young women both in their early thirties who have early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It was confronting viewing.
One young woman was diagnosed just after finding out she was pregnant with her first child. Now a young mother, she is incapable of caring for her new baby and has to be supervised 24/7. Her daughter will never know the once vibrant, energetic woman who is her mother. The young woman’s eyes have that vacant look, she has difficulty speaking, and her prognosis is bleak. Her husband appears to be coping (at least in front of the television cameras) but is clearly grieving. Her own mother, devastated by her daughter’s rapid deterioration, helps where she can, caring for her daughter and granddaughter.
The other young woman is scared, very scared. Not only for herself, as she witnessed her own mother die from the disease when she was in her thirties, but for her own daughters. She has three girls aged 15 months, 8 years and 9 years. Because this particular form of Alzheimer's is autosomal dominant, her daughters have each got a 50% chance of inheriting the same condition.
These two women have a very rare form of Alzheimer’s disease triggered by a defective gene called presenilin 1. This is one of three genes that are linked to early onset familial Alzheimer’s disease. Presenilin 1 is the most common of the three.
This is different from the APOE gene that can increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in general. Having APOE does not guarantee that you will definitely develop Alzheimer’s. Though not having it doesn’t guarantee that you won’t either.
But the genetic link with Presenilin 1, Presenilin 2 and APP is far stronger and hence the risk of familial transmission is far greater. A prenatal test for early onset Alzheimer’s disease due to Presenilin 1 is apparently available. Genetic counselling would be very important to have, before undergoing this test.
Professor Ralph Martins based in Perth, West Australia is one of the world’s top leaders in Alzheimer’s’ disease research. He has dedicated his life to this research and has spent 26 years in this field. He is currently involved in an international study, which is looking at sufferers of early onset Alzheimer’s disease such as the two young women on the TV program. Because this group experiences a much more aggressive form of the disease which progresses much faster, they may hold the key to assist researchers find out more about how and why the disease develops. Professor Martins hope is that by identifying markers, a simple blood test will be able to devised, which will allow people to know whether they have Alzheimer’s disease long before any symptoms develop.
If picked up early, then there will be greater chance for interventional treatments to be more effective in limiting the devastating effect of the disease. Perhaps one day it will also be possible to to prevent the progression of the disease.
The link for the TV segment is below. Please watch it.