Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that affects your behavior, communication, and memory. Aging increases the chances of developing Alzheimer’s in all adults, but the risk is higher in those with Down syndrome.
Down syndrome, or Down’s syndrome, is a chromosomal disorder in which a person has an extra copy of their 21st chromosome. This causes various mental and physical disabilities.
Over the last few decades, people with Down syndrome have been living longer. According to the
This is due to genetics and natural aging. Let’s explore how each factor increases your risk, as well as early symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia in people with Down syndrome.
In people with Down syndrome, the increased risk of Alzheimer’s is related to genetics and natural aging.
Chromosomes carry genes that control how your body builds proteins. This determines all of your biological functions.
Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. One copy comes from each of your biological parents.
One of the 23 pairs is chromosome 21. Chromosome 21 is the smallest human chromosome. One specific gene in chromosome 21 is responsible for producing amyloid precursor protein (APP).
In people who have Down syndrome, they have an extra copy of chromosome 21. This increases their production of APP, which breaks down into beta-amyloid protein.
Beta-amyloid protein may clump together between neurons, resulting in plaques. These beta-amyloid plaques are a hallmark characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
Thus, the increased accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in people with Down syndrome may increase their risk of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s isn’t a typical part of aging. But aging is the greatest risk factor for developing the condition. This is due to the turnover of beta-amyloid protein that occurs with aging combined with the fact that life expectancy continues to rise.
In your central nervous system, APP naturally breaks down into beta-amyloid protein. Your brain then clears it out using certain cells and enzymes.
But this process slows down with age. In a
As a result, beta-amyloid is more likely to accumulate before it’s cleared out, potentially leading to Alzheimer’s. This age-related change can further increase the risk in people with Down syndrome.
In the general population, symptoms typically involve memory loss and forgetfulness. But in people with Down syndrome, symptoms mainly involve personality and overall functioning.
- reduced interest in socializing or conversing
- reduced enthusiasm for usual activities
- decreased attention
- unwillingness to cooperate
- sleep difficulties
- being more noisy or excited than usual
- changes in walking or coordination
- seizures starting in adulthood
Most people with Down syndrome have developed beta-amyloid plaques by the time they’re 40 years old. But they usually receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s in their 50s, according to a
In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, people with Down syndrome may not report symptoms of memory loss. As a result, caregivers who know the person well should watch for changes and contact a doctor or healthcare professional.
To start, it’s important to establish the person’s baseline function by age 35. This includes aspects such as skills, hobbies, and habits. This will help caregivers compare and contrast any changes that occur later on.
A doctor can help caregivers understand a person’s baseline. Together, doctors and caregivers can work together to monitor the person’s function.
If you have Down syndrome, speak with a doctor if you notice the following symptoms:
- changes in usual daily functioning
- decreased enthusiasm for daily activities
- reduced interest in social interactions
- personality changes
- behavioral changes
Similarly, if you’re a caretaker, get medical help if you notice these changes in a person with Down syndrome.
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s. Most Alzheimer’s treatments are directed at relieving symptoms and improving quality-of-life for those affected. Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved any medications to specifically treat Alzheimer’s in people with Down syndrome.
If you’re caring for someone with Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s, the following resources may help:
- National Down Syndrome Society Alzheimer’s Disease & Down Syndrome: A Practical Guidebook for Caregivers
- National Down Syndrome Society Caregiving Newsletter
National Institute of Aging Alzheimer’s Disease in People with Down Syndrome Fact Sheet
- Alzheimer Society: Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease Brochure
- Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
- Down Syndrome Resource Foundation The LowDOWN: A Down Syndrome Podcast
People with Down syndrome are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia. Alzheimer’s is characterized by an accumulation of beta-amyloid protein plaques in your brain.
In people with Down syndrome, the chromosomal anomaly that causes the condition increases beta-amyloid production. Natural aging also slows down your brain’s ability to clear out beta-amyloid, further increasing the risk of accumulation.
Early symptoms of Alzheimer’s in people who have Down syndrome don’t usually involve memory loss. Instead, it typically involves changes in their behavior and personality. If you’re a caregiver, or if you have Down syndrome, talk with a doctor if you notice these changes.