Some evidence suggests a link between autism and Alzheimer’s disease, but more research is necessary to understand the association fully.

Autism and Alzheimer’s disease are two distinct neurological conditions that can significantly affect lives.

Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a developmental condition that can affect social interaction, communication, and behavior.

Conversely, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder primarily associated with memory loss and cognitive decline.

While these conditions differ significantly in their characteristics and onset, recent research suggests autistic adults have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

This article explores the link between autism and Alzheimer’s disease, examining their symptoms, diagnosis, and available support for these conditions.

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Research suggests a link between autism and early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

In a 2021 study of public health records, researchers found that autistic middle-aged adults appear to be more likely to receive a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias than non-autistic people.

Furthermore, it appears memory declines faster in autistic middle-aged adults.

Autistic middle-aged adults also have a higher likelihood of a specific gene called APOE4. This gene increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in later life and can lead to early shrinkage of the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory structure.

While these findings suggest a relationship between autism and Alzheimer’s disease, research is ongoing. The exact mechanisms and causal factors underlying this connection require further investigation.

What is autism?

Autism, or ASD, is a complex and lifelong neurodevelopmental condition that can affect a person’s social interactions, communication skills, and behavior. How it may affect a person varies greatly.

Communication differences are a hallmark of autism. For example, autistic people may have difficulties understanding and responding to social cues. Some may have difficulty forming relationships, making eye contact, or engaging in reciprocal conversations.

Learn more about autism.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive and degenerative brain disorder that predominantly affects older adults, typically over age 65 years.

It is the most common cause of dementia, a condition involving a decline in cognitive abilities severe enough to interfere with daily functioning.

Alzheimer’s disease typically begins with memory problems. People may have difficulty recalling recent conversations, appointments, or tasks.

As the disease progresses, people may experience a decline in thinking ability, including language, problem-solving, and decision making. This can lead to challenges in communication and daily activities.

Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease.

How autism can affect people varies widely and may manifest differently in children and adults.

Common signs of autism in children include:

  • Social challenges: Difficulty making friends, initiating conversations, and understanding social norms can be common.
  • Communication issues: Language delays or deficits are common. Some people may be nonspeaking, while others may have limited speech.
  • Repetitive behaviors: Many autistic children practice repetitive actions, such as hand-flapping, rocking, or repeating specific phrases or actions. These behaviors can be a source of comfort or self-regulation.
  • Sensory sensitivities: Children may be susceptible to bright lights, loud sounds, certain textures, or strong odors.
  • Intense interests: Intense interests in specific topics or activities can be all-consuming and may provide a sense of predictability and comfort.

Autistic adults may also have social and communication differences. Some may thrive in structured and predictable environments and become distressed when faced with unexpected changes.

Furthermore, autistic individuals may have an increased risk of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease. Early on, people experience memory loss, especially concerning recent events.

As the disease progresses, memory problems become more pronounced, affecting recent occurrences and those in the distant past. People may not recognize close family members. They may forget names, appointments, or where they place everyday objects.

A person with Alzheimer’s disease may also:

  • find certain tasks difficult, such as those they used to handle easily, including managing finances, cooking, or following familiar processes
  • have trouble finding the right words, following or joining conversations, or repeating themselves in conversation
  • become confused about the current date or their location, even in familiar surroundings
  • find basic activities difficult, such as bathing, dressing, and grooming
  • experience mood changes, irritability, and changes in personality
  • have communication difficulties, such as difficulty understanding spoken or written language

Eventually, people with Alzheimer’s disease may lose the ability to walk, sit, and swallow. They will need caregivers to manage all aspects of care, including feeding, bathing, and toileting.

Early diagnosis of autism and Alzheimer’s disease is crucial, as it allows for timely intervention and support.

By identifying signs of autism at a young age, healthcare professionals can initiate any needed interventions and support. For instance, speech, occupational, and behavioral therapy can help address specific challenges and enhance communication and social skills.

Some autistic children may benefit from individualized education plans tailored to their unique needs, helping them thrive in educational settings. Furthermore, behavioral interventions, such as applied behavior analysis, can help manage any challenging behaviors.

In cases of Alzheimer’s disease, early diagnosis allows individuals and their families to plan for the future and access appropriate care and support.

Additionally, medications and therapies that may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease are most effective when initiated early in the disease process.

The precise causes of autism are still under investigation, so experts do not fully know how to reduce its chances of developing. However, early intervention strategies can improve communication, social skills, and adaptive behaviors in autistic children who need support.

Likewise, there is no guaranteed way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. That said, certain lifestyle strategies may help reduce its risk or delay its onset. These include:

  • consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids to support brain health
  • getting regular physical activity, including cardiovascular and strength training
  • engaging in intellectually stimulating activities, such as puzzles, reading, and learning new skills
  • staying socially active and maintaining strong social connections
  • managing chronic conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity
  • prioritizing quality sleep for optimal brain health and cognitive function
  • reducing stress by employing stress management techniques, such as mindfulness or yoga

Support and community resources for autistic individuals or people with Alzheimer’s disease are essential for enhancing quality of life and well-being.

People can find support and information about autism from the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and The Autism Society.

Individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones can connect with the Alzheimer’s Association. This nonprofit offers many resources, including support groups, educational materials, and a helpline for information and assistance.

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental condition that can include social difficulties, communication challenges, and repetitive behaviors.

Research suggests autistic people have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative condition primarily affecting older adults.

More research is necessary to understand the association between the two conditions fully.