Japan Times (July 3, 2014): Part II: Early Onset Dementia Poses Special Problems

Publication Date: 
Thu, 07/03/2014

Whenever her dementia-afflicted husband went to bed, Reiko Ozawa would sigh in relief and sometimes wish he would never wake up.

That was because once he did, a living nightmare would await her, as her husband, Kunio, would tend to wander off, rant at her and even suffer hallucinations.

“My marriage with you was the biggest mistake of my life,” Kunio, who passed away six years ago at age 64, once shouted at Ozawa in one of his worst outbursts. It didn’t take long before he reverted to what appeared to be a childhood mentality, calling Ozawa “mom.”

So far, so typical for dementia patients and the people who look after them.

Except that by the time all these symptoms came to light, Kunio was still in his late 50s, four years after he was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 54 in 1998.

“We were all shocked, because back then, being diagnosed with dementia at such a young age was utterly inconceivable,” said Ozawa, 66, who now heads a self-help organization called Hoshi no Kai (roughly Group of Reshining Stars) for early onset dementia patients and their families.

Early onset dementia affects people younger than 65, but experts say the belief that dementia only strikes seniors remains pervasive, obfuscating the plight being suffered by the condition’s younger patients.

Going by the numbers only, there are few patients with early onset dementia. A 2009 Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey found an estimated 37,000 such patients, with some as young as 18. In contrast, the number of dementia patients older than 64 hit 4.6 million nationwide in 2012, when the ministry last ran a survey.