Often associated with old age, dementia can also affect people under 65, and even adolescents and young adults. Experts then speak of precocious or juvenile dementia. The consequences are heavy.
The vast majority of patients with dementia face it in old age. It is estimated that only about 4% of dementia cases are early. In general, it concerns people from 40 to 65 years old, but it can occur at an even younger age.
A diagnostic problem
Dementia is an umbrella term for a set of disorders affecting cognitive abilities chronically and with increasing severity. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in the elderly (75% of cases). For the youngest, it explains a third of the cases. Other neurodegenerative diseases are therefore predominantly involved, such as frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body disease, vascular dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
It takes an average of four and a half years before a young patient is properly diagnosed, as dementia is rarely the first disorder that comes to mind in this situation. Doctors are more inclined towards depression, professional exhaustion (burn out), chronic stress, midlife crisis or relationship problems.
An important symptom of dementia (juvenile or not) is memory loss. Affected people often forget appointments, names, important dates, etc. But other signs can appear, affecting behavior or mood: uninhibited attitude, disinterest, apathy, rigidity of thought and action, lack of hygiene, weak empathy. Navigation problems may appear as well as loss of language skills and difficulties in using tools.
Helplessness and frustration
Cognitive decline is generally faster in young patients. They are more aware that their mental faculties are deteriorating, which leads to strong feelings of helplessness and frustration. The consequences on private, social and professional life are particularly serious.
Furthermore, when dementia occurs early in life, those affected are usually still working. They often have children who live with them in the household as well as financial obligations. Depending on their age, it is difficult for children to understand and accept that a parent has developed dementia. They need support to learn how to deal with it. A therapeutic accompaniment can be very useful.
Early onset dementia also has a profound impact on the relationship in marriage and partnership. The joint life planning is overturned as one of the partners becomes increasingly dependent on the other.
The question also arises as to whether it is possible to continue working first – possibly in a less demanding work area or with reduced hours. Both changes are associated with financial losses. Financial obligations (for example, a mortgage) can quickly grow over a family’s head if family income suddenly declines significantly.