Symptoms and Signs of Alzheimer's Disease in Down Syndrome

Medical Author: John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP
Medically Reviewed on 5/31/2022

Doctor's Notes on Alzheimer's Disease in Down Syndrome

Alzheimer's disease (AD) is the most common cause of dementia, a brain disorder that interferes with a person's ability to carry out everyday activities. It is a progressive, degenerative brain disorder. Down syndrome is a genetic disorder in which a person has extra genes because of extra chromosome 21 material, which causes delays and limitations in physical and intellectual development. People with Down syndrome have a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

The main symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in individuals with Down syndrome include

  • confusion,
  • disorientation, and
  • wandering.

Other symptoms of Alzheimer's disease in individuals with Down syndrome include

  • behavior changes,
  • inability to perform job duties in those who are higher functioning,
  • visual problems,
  • cognitive and memory deficits can get lost in familiar environments,
  • impaired learning,
  • loss of language and communication skills,
  • impaired social skills, and
  • progressive loss of ability to perform daily tasks.

As Alzheimer's disease progresses, symptoms in individuals with Down syndrome include total dependence on others for dressing, eating, walking, and toilet needs; reduced communication; exaggerated behavioral problems; and psychotic behavior. Physical symptoms of Alzheimer's disease are similar to those in people without Down syndrome and include motor disorders, difficulty walking, eating disorders, problems swallowing (which can lead to choking), and epileptic seizures

What is the Treatment for Alzheimer's Disease in Individuals with Down Syndrome?

There are currently no medications approved in the United States for the treatment of Alzheimer’s dementia in Down syndrome patients. 

Cholinesterase inhibitors, a class of drugs approved in other countries to treat Alzheimer's, are approved to treat dementia in people with Down syndrome in some other countries. As of now, there is no conclusive evidence these drugs are beneficial in Down syndrome patients.

Supportive care such as occupational and physical therapy may help early on in the disease process. Patients may need sedative medications, sleep medications, seizure medications, and possibly gastric tubes to help with feeding. Severe cases may need around-the-clock home care or nursing home level care.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.