Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurological condition that causes brain cells to atrophy (shrink) and eventually break down. The diagnosis is most frequently made in people over the age of 65. When the disease develops in people younger than 65, it's known as early-onset Alzheimer's.
Early Alzheimer's disease is characterized mainly by memory loss and confusion. As the disease worsens, it affects fundamental cognitive abilities such as speech, problem-solving, recognition, and behavioral patterns. The Social Security Administration (SSA) awards disability for Alzheimer's patients who can no longer work due to cognitive deterioration.
Early-onset Alzheimer's affects people who haven't yet reached retirement age, so a diagnosis can often cut short the ability to work for people who thought they'd be in the labor force for many more years. Because the disease is progressive and irreversible, Social Security doesn't expect people with early-onset Alzheimer's to recover enough to return to work, and can award benefits quickly with the proper medical documentation.
The first symptom of Alzheimer's is short-term memory loss, which becomes more pronounced as the disease worsens. Later stages of Alzheimer's include the following symptoms:
Doctors don't currently have a cure for Alzheimer's, so treatment revolves around cognition-enhancing medications and therapy meant to improve quality of life and possibly slow the disease's progression.
Alzheimer's is a particularly debilitating medical condition that's likely to be considered disabling by the SSA. But you'll still need to make sure that you meet the non-medical criteria for the type of benefit you're applying for, which can include having enough work credits or meeting certain SSI resource limits.
If you've been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's, you might qualify for expedited disability benefits under Social Security's Compassionate Allowances program for the most serious impairments. People with a condition on the compassionate allowances list can be approved in as quickly as one month.
The Compassionate Allowances program works by streamlining the amount of evidence Social Security needs to show that you meet the requirements of a listed impairment. Getting benefits this way usually takes a long time, because listed impairments require specific results in your medical record that aren't always present until the disease progresses. But the diagnosis of a compassionate allowance condition signals to the SSA that it's likely you already meet a listing requirement, letting the agency speed up the disability determination process.
Social Security evaluates early-onset Alzheimer's by looking at two listings: listing 11.17, neurodegenerative disorders of the central nervous system, and listing 12.02, neurocognitive disorders. If you have any physical deterioration, the SSA will review your application under Listing 11.17, which requires evidence of the following:
If your Alzheimer's symptoms are solely mental or cognitive in nature, the SSA will review your application under Listing 12.02. The SSA will look for evidence of significant decline in at least one of the following areas:
You'll also need to show that you have an "extreme" limitation in one, or a "marked" limitation in two, of mental functions such as applying information, interacting with others, focusing on tasks, and taking care of yourself. An extreme limitation means that you can't perform the function independently, while a marked limitation means that you can do it yourself only occasionally.
To get a compassionate allowance for early-onset Alzheimer's, Social Security needs to see medical records including doctors' notes documenting 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.
For more information, see our article on getting disability benefits for neurocognitive disorders.
You can still qualify for disability benefits even if you don't meet the listing requirements if you can show that symptoms from your Alzheimer's disease keep you from working. The SSA will look at your medical records and your functional limitations to assess your residual functional capacity (RFC), a set of restrictions on what you can and can't do in a work setting.
Social Security uses your RFC to determine whether your Alzheimer's symptoms keep you from performing your past work or any other jobs. Depending on your age, work history, and any skills you learned at your past jobs, the agency may use special rules known as the medical-vocational grid to find that you're disabled. Here's how applicants of different ages could get approved under the grid rules:
The more severe your Alzheimer's symptoms are, the more likely your RFC will contain restrictions that don't allow you to perform any work. If you're forgetting to complete basic tasks or becoming disoriented over minor changes, for example, it's unlikely that an employer would hire you to perform even the simplest jobs.
Social Security has several easy ways to apply for disability benefits:
If somebody you know with Alzheimer's has difficulty completing their application, you can help them file. Make sure that you let the SSA know how the applicant's cognitive limitations affect how they're able to take care of daily needs such as hygiene, food preparation, grocery shopping, and communication. Include any additional problems they might have, physical or mental, on the application. Social Security must consider the combined effects of all impairments when making a disability determination.
Updated January 27, 2023