Still Alice with Julianne Moore

What Julianne Moore's Oscar-Winning 'Still Alice' Role Gets Right About Alzheimer's

In her Best Actress acceptance speech, Julianne Moore expressed gratitude that her film “Still Alice” could raise awareness about early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. (Getty Images/Craig Sjodin)

Julianne Moore took home one of the night’s top honors at Sunday’s Academy Awards, winning Best Actress for her role as a professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice. In the film, Moore portrays a highly respected Columbia University linguistics expert who starts to get lost on her regular runs and, ironically, begins to grasp for words.

"I’m so happy, I’m thrilled actually, that we were able to hopefully shine a light on Alzheimer’s disease, " Moore said in her acceptance speech for the Academy Award. In post-Oscar press interviews, she added, “I like stories about real people, and real relationships, and real families, and that’s what I respond to, and this movie had all of those things in it. It’s about a real issue.”

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Early-onset Alzheimer’s is defined as Alzheimer’s disease that affects a person younger than 65. The Alzheimer’s Association says that up to 5 percent of Americans with the disease have early-onset Alzheimer’s.

The symptoms are very similar between younger and older people with Alzhemer’s disease, says James Leverenz, MD, director of the Cleveland Center for Brain Health at Cleveland Clinic’s Neurological Institute. “There has been a general sense that the younger onsets have a more aggressive and rapidly progressing disease than the older onsets, but every patient is a little bit different, ” he tells Yahoo Health.

So-called “normal” memory loss, which can begin in the mid-30s, is characterized by a slowing in the retrieval of information, Leverenz says. It might be more difficult to come up with words and names, but you can still learn and hold onto new memories, he explains.

Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, involves difficulties learning and remembering new things. People with the condition “may be having a conversation over dinner and then an hour or two later they don’t remember that conversation, ” Leverenz says. “In younger-onset patients, we also sometimes see problems with planning, organizing, and multitasking. A lot of people are still working, and they notice that at work they’re struggling to keep up because they don’t have the speed and organization that they used to have.” (For more telltale symptoms, the Alzheimer’s Association offers a guide to 10 early signs of the disease.)

The challenge of coping with a new sense of self, portrayed in Still Alice, is a common experience for many patients, Leverenz confirms. It’s normal to feel frustrated that things that used to be easy and second nature are now difficult.

“There can be a real loss of self, ” he says. “I’ve had a lot of patients say to me, ‘This is something I always used to be able to do, in fact I took a lot of pride in my memory, and now it’s not a strength, it’s a weakness.”

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