Early-onset Alzheimer’s is rare—only three percent of Alzheimer’s patients are affected before age 65. But with so few treatment options and a devastating disease progression, that statistic doesn’t always stop us from worrying about the condition when we have “senior moments” or brief periods of forgetfulness. So how can we tell what’s normal and what constitutes a doctor’s visit?

“I always tell people, it’s not forgetting your keys or where you parked that should be of concern,” says Reisa Sperling, MD, director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Those kinds of momentary lapses can typically be attributed to lack of attention, poor sleep, medications or stress—and they’re temporary. “The problem,” adds Dr. Sperling, “is when you start forgetting that you drove your car to work that day, or where you need to go after work to get home or to some event.”

Dr. Sperling advises a series of questions you can ask if you or a family member is having memory challenges, including whether forgetfulness is persistent and getting worse; whether friends and family are noticing memory or behavioral changes; and whether there’s a family history of dementia. “An increase in forgetfulness that lasts more than six months or a year, and starts to interfere with things people want to do in their life, warrants a trip to see a doctor,” notes Dr. Sperling. Although memory loss is the symptom most frequently associated with Alzheimer’s, behavioral and personality changes — such as difficulty communicating, an unusually short temper, apathy, or withdrawal — can also be signs.

Dr. Sperling herself has a family history of the illness, but is hopeful that her research into the disease’s preclinical phase can lead to earlier detection. “We now know that Alzheimer’s begins many years before people get symptoms,” she says. “If we want to prevent it, we have to start as early as possible.” Using brain imaging, Dr. Sperling and her team are now able to identify the brain changes thought to trigger mental deterioration as many as 20 years before symptoms are noticeable.

“We haven’t hit a home run yet but I am encouraged,” Dr. Sperling says. “Treating early and more aggressively is making a dent.”

Read more in The Boston Globe.

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