Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are degenerative brain diseases that damage neurons or nerve cells in the brain that are responsible for cognitive function. Although there are several types of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type accounting for 60-80% of cases. All dementias are characterized as a decline in memory, language and problem solving skills, often profound enough to affect an individual’s ability to perform everyday tasks. Eventually, neuronal damage can affect the individual’s ability to carry out basic bodily functions such as walking and swallowing. Individuals in the final stage of the disease are often bed-bound and require 24-hour care.1
There are several types of dementia. Of these, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, the best known, and the most feared. It is considered a chronic disease, persisting for a long period with no known cure or effective treatment. A preclinical phase can begin 15-30 years before symptoms appear. During this time, nerve cell damage begins to take place. If symptoms are reported and evaluated early on, the individual may be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. At this stage, individuals may show some degree of memory loss, but are still able to complete such routine tasks as paying bills and managing medications, though these tasks may demand greater mental effort. Some individuals do not progress past the mild cognitive impairment stage. However, most individuals develop worsening symptoms, and they are ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or related dementia. Once diagnosed, three clinical phases are recognized: mild, moderate, and severe, with an average survival rate of 4 to 8 years after diagnosis. Nevertheless, some individuals can live as long as 20 years with Alzheimer’s. The stages of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are presented in Appendix D of Montana’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementias State Plan. While some medical professionals describe these stages a bit differently, the seven-stage approach is used here as it provides a more comprehensive description of symptoms and a clearer road map for what lies ahead. It is important to note that not all memory loss symptoms are dementia related. Anyone experiencing concerns regarding memory loss should have a thorough evaluation with their health care provider.
Although most people develop symptoms of dementia after the age of 65, some Individuals can experience signs of dementia beginning as early as their 30s. Individuals with young onset dementia experience a greater initial loss of cognitive abilities such as deficits in attention, visual information interpretation, and language. The trajectory of the disease shows a faster rate of decline compared to individuals with later onset Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis of young onset dementia is often delayed due to the insidiousness nature of the disease and because the first signs are often ignored or explained away, as stress or fatigue. The disease affects all aspects of their lives, their ability to be in the workforce, to maintain relationships and support, and to be independent. Therefore, there is economic disruption, intimacy, quality of life and well-being issues that may be more exaggerated in individuals with early onset dementia.2 These individuals may also have increased difficulty accessing mainstream dementia services often targeted for older adults, which may have age restrictions.