Dementia is a neurological condition characterised by a gradual decline in cognitive functions, communication abilities, and memory retention, often accompanied by changes in personality and mood. Each individual’s journey with dementia is unique, and the progression of the disease varies from person to person. Certain symptoms may be more prevalent depending on the type of dementia. When symptoms of dementia manifest before the age of 65, it is referred to as “young onset” dementia, typically occurring between the ages of 30 to 65.

Although also known as “early onset” or “working age” dementia, these terms can sometimes be confusing. “Early onset” might be misconstrued as the initial stages of dementia, while “working age” is now less defined due to the flexibility in retirement age. Symptoms of young onset dementia are similar to those in older adults and may include memory loss, cognitive decline, changes in behaviour, language difficulties, and difficulty with daily activities.

Given that dementia is commonly associated with old age, the early signs of young-onset dementia are frequently overlooked or attributed to other factors such as depression, stress, menopause, physical ailments, or relationship issues. Consequently, there is often a significant delay, averaging about four years, in receiving an accurate diagnosis and accessing appropriate support. This delay not only impacts the individual with dementia but also places strain on their entire family.

How does young-onset dementia develop?

Young-onset dementia develops similarly to late-onset dementia, but it occurs in individuals under the age of 65. The exact causes of young onset dementia are not fully understood, but they can include a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Some potential factors contributing to its development include:

  • Genetic predisposition: Certain genetic mutations can increase the risk of developing dementia at a younger age.
  • Neurological changes: Abnormalities in brain structure and function, such as the accumulation of amyloid plaques and tau protein tangles, are common features of dementia regardless of age of onset.
  • Environmental factors: Exposure to toxins, head injuries, infections, and other environmental factors may contribute to the development of dementia.
  • Lifestyle factors: Unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, poor diet, and lack of physical and mental activity, can increase the risk of developing dementia at a younger age.
  • Underlying medical conditions: Some medical conditions, such as Down syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and HIV/AIDS, can increase the risk of young-onset dementia.

The development of young-onset dementia is complex and multifactorial, involving a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle influences. Early recognition and diagnosis are crucial for managing the condition and providing appropriate support and interventions.

What are the differences to late-onset dementia?

  • Age of onset: Late-onset dementia typically occurs after the age of 65, while young-onset dementia manifests before the age of 65.
  • Progression: The progression of late-onset dementia may be slower compared to young-onset dementia.
  • Diagnosis challenges: Young onset dementia may face greater challenges in diagnosis due to its rarity and the misconception that dementia only affects older adults.
  • Impact on family and work: Young onset dementia can have a more significant impact on family dynamics and employment due to its occurrence during prime working and caregiving years.
  • Treatment considerations: Treatment approaches may need to be adapted for young onset dementia patients, considering their relatively younger age and potentially different life circumstances.

Prompt identification and prompt, precise diagnosis of dementia, accompanied by tailored specialist assistance, can alleviate the emotional burden on individuals affected by young-onset dementia and their families. If any concerns arise, scheduling a consultation with a physician is advisable. Seeking early medical attention can alleviate anxiety, offer clarity, and provide necessary information.