Monday, June 2, 2008

Early onset Alzheimer's affecting older people with Down syndrome

Gerry Thomas with his sister, Beth.

The New York Times had an in-depth story illuminating what its calls "a cruel coincidence" in which older adults with Down syndrome appear to have a higher incidence of Alzheimer's disease.

"Research has shown that people with Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality, have a much higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease at an early age," The New York Times reports. "Some studies have said that 60 to 75 percent of people over age 60 with Down syndrome will have Alzheimer’s, though Dr. Ira Lott, who is in charge of the Down syndrome program at the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, said those studies have been limited in scope."

Gerry Thomas, 50, (pictured above) was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's two years ago. For the NYT interview, he struggled to answer a question about his favorite beer. “I think I’m losing it,” he said.

Advances in health care have meant the average life expectancy of someone with Down syndrome has risen to more than 50 years old, up from 25 in 1983. But some family members now have to learn to deal with the added disability of Alzheimer's affecting their loved one with Down syndrome.

Dr. Philip Levy, president of the Manhattan-based YAI/National Institute for People with Disabilities, said in the article that "Alzheimer’s theft of memory and communication skills is particularly devastating for people with Down syndrome, who have a lower-than-average I.Q. but can make friends easily."

“Their social skills are one of the things that makes them feel very important; they get a lot of positive attention for that,” Dr. Levy noted. “So, when that is taken away, it is very, very cruel.”