Virtually all adults with Down syndrome (DS) show the neuropathological changes of Alzheimer disease (AD) by the age of 40 years. This association is partially due to overexpression of amyloid precursor protein, encoded by APP, as a result of the location of this gene on chromosome 21. Amyloid-β accumulates in the brain across the lifespan of people with DS, which provides a unique opportunity to understand the temporal progression of AD and the epigenetic factors that contribute to the age of dementia onset. This age dependency in the development of AD in DS can inform research into the presentation of AD in the general population, in whom a longitudinal perspective of the disease is not often available. Comparison of the risk profiles, biomarker profiles and genetic profiles of adults with DS with those of individuals with AD in the general population can help to determine common and distinct pathways as well as mechanisms underlying increased risk of dementia. This Review evaluates the similarities and differences between the pathological cascades and genetics underpinning DS and AD with the aim of providing a platform for common exploration of these disorders.