Getting Disability Benefits for Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease

Social Security has specific criteria for when Alzheimer's qualifies for disability, but an early-onset diagnosis gets fast-tracked.

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative neurological condition that results in progressive cognitive decline. The first symptom of Alzheimer’s is short-term memory loss, which becomes more pronounced as the disease worsens. Eventually, Alzheimer’s disease affects all aspects of an individual's life, such as speech, problem solving, recognition abilities, and behavior. In the late stage of Alzheimer’s, an individual's symptoms might include the inability to recognize family members, lack of cognitive abilities, incontinence, an inability to even feed oneself, and even an inability to walk. Treatment options include medications and other therapies to improve quality of life and possibly slow the progression of the disease.

Disability for Alzheimer's Disease

Often by the time people find out they are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, they are over 65, which means they are too old to collect disability benefits through the Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or SSI program. (Note that those over 65 are usually eligible for either Social Security retirement benefits or SSI benefits, without needing to be found disabled. Applicants between 62 and 66 can choose to apply for Social Security disability benefits rather than taking Social Security retirement. Read our article about applying for disability when you're over 65 for more information.)

Those who are diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease (onset before age 65) are able to collect disability benefits if their symptoms and limitations are severe enough. The disability listing that Social Security uses to evaluate the severity of Alzheimer's disease (and other forms of dementia) is the listing for neurocognitive disorders. This listing was updated significantly in 2017 (formerly it was the listing for organic mental disorders”). To meet the requirements of this disability listing, applicants with Alzheimer’s disease must prove that their abilities have significantly declined in one or more of the following areas:

  • learning and remembering (short-term memory in particular)
  • using language (inability to recall words, misuse of words)
  • paying attention to tasks or listening to others
  • planning and judgment
  • social cognition (ability to know proper social behavior in differing circumstances), or
  • physical coordination.

After it’s established that an applicant has a significant decline in one of the above areas, Social Security will look to see how severely the applicant’s functioning is limited. Specifically, the applicant must either have an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or a “marked” (severe) limitation in two of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, or using information (ability to understand instructions, learn new things, apply new knowledge to tasks)
  • concentrating on tasks and completing tasks at a reasonable speed
  • adapting or managing oneself (making plans for oneself independently of others; being aware of normal hazards and taking appropriate precautions, having practical personal skills), and
  • interacting with others (with socially acceptable behavior).

Expedited Processing for Early-Onset Alzheimer's Disease

Social Security has added early-onset Alzheimer's disease to its list of Compassionate Allowance conditions, meaning that the agency will fast-track the processing of the disability application so that applicants with Alzheimer's don't needlessly have to go through the hassle of a denial and appeal as their symptoms get worse. Most applications that qualify for compassionate allowance treatment are approved within one month.

If you are helping someone apply for Social Security disability benefits, be sure to note on the application, or tell the Social Security field rep, that the applicant qualifies for Compassionate Allowance treatment and that the exact diagnosis is "early-onset Alzheimer's disease." Social Security will need to see medical records that include clinical notes documenting the applicant’s progressive dementia and an activities of daily living report filled out by a relative or caregiver. Results from standardized tests, such as the Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) scale or the Mini–Mental State Examination (MMSE), are also helpful.

Applying for Disability for Alzheimer's

To help someone apply for disability, you can call 800-772-1213 to set up an appointment to submit an application for SSI or SSDI through your local SSA office. If you’re helping someone to apply for SSDI only, you can do so online at www.ssa.gov. In your application, include how the applicant's dementia is affecting his or her ability to take care of daily needs such as hygiene, food preparation, grocery shopping, and communication.

If the applicant has physical problems as well, or other mental problems such as depression, include these on the application. Even if a mental impairment isn't yet severe enough to qualify on its own, sometimes together two or three impairments can qualify for disability. (See our article on multiple disabilities for more information.)

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