If you think Alzheimer’s disease happens only to older people, think again. A Chinese teenager has become the world’s youngest person to be diagnosed with the condition.
Although Alzheimer’s can strike people in their 20s and 30s, the unfortunate victims in these rare cases have head trauma, a family history of the disease, or a genetic mutation to account for it. But this young man had none of them.
His case casts doubt on the traditional view that Alzheimer’s is a disease of the elderly as well as raises questions about a rise in cases among young people.
The young man’s problems started at the age of 17, when he began having difficulty concentrating on his schoolwork. A year later his short-term memory began to fade. He frequently lost his belongings, couldn’t recall events of the previous day or even whether he’d eaten that morning. School assignments became impossible to finish and eventually he had to withdraw from high school.
At the tender age of 19 he was hospitalized at Xuanwu Hospital in Beijing. The stay marked the beginning of a lengthy medical study of his memory loss that resulted in some surprising findings.
Key Brain Areas Damaged
After a series of cognitive tests, his doctors concluded that his memory was “significantly” impaired. In fact, brain scans revealed shrinkage of the hypothalamus, which is an early marker of Alzheimer’s disease. The temporal lobe, a key memory area, was also damaged. However, the doctors could find no evidence of amyloid plaques or tau tangles in the brain – both hallmarks of the disease.
Testing the patient’s cerebrospinal fluid, they found an abnormally high concentration of p-tau181. This protein is a well-established biomarker of Alzheimer’s and typically occurs before tau tangles are formed in the brain.
The team also conducted a lab procedure called whole genome sequencing to analyze his DNA makeup, yet it failed to find any known genetic mutation linked to the disease.
With no family history, head trauma, diseases or infections that could account for his plight, the investigation team concluded that even without evidence of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain, their findings met the criteria for a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s disease.
No Longer A Disease Of The Elderly
In a statement the research team explained their findings, saying, “Exploring the mysteries of young people with Alzheimer’s disease may become one of the most challenging scientific questions of the future.” They added that Alzheimer’s could no longer be considered exclusively a disease of the elderly.
That last comment may seem like overkill from a single case report, but they’re not alone in their warning. Many researches are pointing to an alarming rise in Alzheimer’s disease cases in people who are in middle age.
Six-Fold Increase In Thirty Year Olds
The most recent Blue Cross Blue Shield commercial insurance data reveals that between 2013 and 2017 a diagnosis of both dementia and Alzheimer’s tripled in the 30 to 64 age group, affecting 131,000 people. Average age of diagnosis was just 49.
Broken down by age, here are the rates of diagnosis of both dementia and Alzheimer’s disease:
- Increased five-fold among ages 30 – 44.
- Quadrupled among those aged 45 – 54.
- Doubled among 55 – 64-year-olds.
The equivalent rates for a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease alone in these age groups was even higher:
- Increased six-fold among ages 30 – 44.
- Increased more than three-fold among those aged 45 – 54.
- Nearly doubled among 55 – 64-year-olds.
And Alzheimer’s isn’t the exception.
Many conditions once considered the domain of the old now afflict younger people.
For instance, osteoarthritis is increasingly seen in those aged 35 – 45. Incidence of colorectal cancers and stroke have surged in the under 55s. Type-1 and Type-2 diabetes is exploding in younger age groups and people in their 20s and 30s are suffering heart attacks in increasing numbers.
But when it comes to dementia, researchers are still trying to understand the reasons behind the dramatic rise in cases.
Dementia Can Occur At Any Age
Alzheimer’s researcher Dr. Osman Shabir from the University of Sheffield, England, wrote that while the young man’s condition “remains a medical mystery…cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease are on the rise in younger patients.
“Sadly, this is unlikely to be the last such rare case that we hear about.”
George Perry, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, which published the case report in January, said it highlights that dementia can involve people at any age.
“Significantly, this finding may separate Alzheimer’s disease from the complexity of aging and open the field to new concepts to promote innovation. Finding a 19-year-old [with probable Alzheimer’s disease] moves the issue from middle-age onset (current concept) to early adulthood.”
As Dr. Perry implies, scientists need to completely rethink this disease. Their focus on clearing amyloid plaque from the brain has led us down a blind alley of ineffective prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease for far too long.
Until they start to think outside their box of prescription drugs and turn their focus to diet, lifestyle and targeted nutritional support, Alzheimer’s will impact ever growing numbers of people at younger and younger ages.
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