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The BBC's Richard Hannaford
"Doctors are now more aware."
 real 28k

Friday, 10 November, 2000, 18:05 GMT
Alzheimer's: A disease of the young?
brain scan
A diagnosis of Alzheimer's is devastating news
By BBC Health Correspondent Richard Hannaford

Figures suggest that more and more young people are being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

And the experts say that the NHS is not set up to help younger victims.

The Alzheimer's Disease Society estimates that as many as 17,000 people in Britain, under the age of sixty five, have Alzheimer's.

We have a gentleman who's only 36. We've had two in their 20s, but that's two too many

Michelle Murray, Alzheimer's Nurse
It's a terrifying illness even for those in their 80s - but the tragedy can be even more poignant for those in their 50s, 40s, and 30s.

Susan Lawson, in her late 50s, could reasonably have expected to be nearing a long and happy retirement.

However a diagnosis of Alzheimers earlier this year has left her and her husband Nigel in turmoil.

She'd had trouble for some time with forgetfulness and an inability to concentrate. At first they thought it was a thyroid problem. But eventually they discovered the truth.

She said: "Professor Burns told me that he thought I had Alzheimers at which I burst into tears. And said how long will it be before I go totally gaga.

"He said there's no reason why why you should go gaga as you call it - we've got new drugs no and there's optimism".

Sue is no longer able to do many things like cooking and reading.

She cannot remember simple things, like the whether she has put water in the kettle, or the order of words on the page.

Sue attends one of the few units in the country which offers support to younger sufferers.

Michelle Murray, the nurse who runs the service says she's seeing more and more younger patients.

She sees more than one hundred younger patients in Manchester: "We currently have a lady who's referred to us who's only 56 years old.

"She was a sister on a medical ward only three years ago. We have a gentleman who's only thirty six. the people we've had in their twenties are few and far between, we've had two, but that's two too many".

She says because the NHS is really only set up for Alzheimers patients being over 70 - younger sufferers are not well catered-for.

She says: "There's lots of information about dementia in later life but not for working age life - and when you're in working age life you need that support, and so does your family really".

Doctors more aware

The Alzheimer's Disease Society does not believe the illness is getting more common among the young - only that doctors are now more aware that it can affect younger people.

A regular visitor to the Carisbrook Centre is Dr Joe McShane. His wife Ethna was struck down by the disease more than ten years ago. Once a bright and confident GP herself - she's now in the long stay ward of the Withington Hospital in Manchester.

As head of the local branch of the Alzheimer's Disease Society, Dr Mcshane believes for too long people have shied away from the reality of the illness.

He says on curent estimates many more of us will be diagnosed with a dementing illness like Alzheimer's in the future, and the NHS and society in general should be prepared.

He said: "40 or 50 years ago no one ever spoke openly about cancer - now of course everyone's very aware and because they're aware they realise there are great needs in this.

"We got to do the same thing. We've not got to keep this under the blanket. We've got to expose it to the full light of publicity".

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