Early dementia signs vs. plain old aging
Sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the warning signs of Alzheimer's disease helps no one -- certainly not the person afflicted.
In fact, not everyone who shows the various Alzheimer's symptoms actually has the disease, according to Peggy Rubenstein, manager of care consultation for the Alzheimer's Association's Illinois Chapter. So, it is necessary to seek a doctor's diagnosis to rule out other health problems that mimic dementia, such as depression, drug interactions and vitamin deficiencies.
And if it is Alzheimer's, Rubenstein said being diagnosed can actually be a relief because you finally know what you are dealing with and how you can be involved in your own planning for the future by taking part in open discussions with your loved ones. You can also make your personal wishes clear and get emotional support.
Rubenstein explained that Alzheimer's is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. It is also one of the most feared diseases one can get because it's the only disease in the top ten causes of death that cannot be prevented, cured or even slowed at this time. But those who are diagnosed early will have the opportunity to start treatment early, enroll in various clinical trials, and take a lead in their future planning.
Here are the ten warning signs of Alzheimer's from the Alzheimer's Association:
Memory loss that disrupts daily life. One of the most common signs of Alzheimer's disease, especially in the early stage, is forgetting recently learned information. Others include forgetting important dates or events, asking the same question over and over again, or increasingly needing to rely on memory aids (e.g., reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things the person used to handle on their own. What's a typical age-related change? Sometimes forgetting names or appointments, but remembering them later.
Challenges in planning or solving problems. Some people living with dementia may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. They may have trouble following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly bills. They may have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before. What's a typical age-related change? Making occasional errors when managing finances or household bills.
Difficulty completing familiar tasks. People living with Alzheimer's disease often find it hard to complete routine tasks. Sometimes they may have trouble driving to a familiar location, organizing a grocery list or remembering the rules of a favorite game. What's a typical age-related change? Occasionally needing help to use microwave settings or to record a TV show.
Confusion with time or place. People living with Alzheimer's can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time. They may have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately. Sometimes they may forget where they are or how they got there. What's a typical age-related change? Getting confused about the day of the week, but figuring it out later.
Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships. For some people, vision problems are a sign of Alzheimer's. They may also have problems judging distance and determining color or contrast, causing issues with driving. What's a typical age-related change? Vision changes related to cataracts.
New problems with words in speaking or writing. People living with Alzheimer's may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue, or repeat themselves. They may struggle with vocabulary, have trouble naming a familiar object or use the wrong name. What's a typical age-related change? Sometimes having trouble finding the right word.
Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. A person living with Alzheimer's may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. He or she may accuse others of stealing, especially as the disease progresses. What's a typical age-related change? Misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them.
Decreased or poor judgment. Individuals may experience changes in judgment or decision-making. For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money, or pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean. What's a typical age-related change? Making a bad decision once in a while, like neglecting to change the oil in the car.
Withdrawal from work or social activities. A person living with Alzheimer's may experience changes in the ability to hold or follow a conversation. As a result, he or she may withdraw from hobbies, social activities or other engagements. They may have trouble keeping up with a favorite team or activity. What's a typical age-related change? Sometimes feeling uninterested in family or social obligations.
Changes in mood and personality. Individuals living with Alzheimer's may experience mood and personality changes. They may be easily upset at home, at work, with friends or when out of their comfort zone. What's a typical age-related change? Developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted.
"If you start feeling different or if others notice behavior that is 'a little off' or disrupts your daily life, it is time to take a closer look," said Rubenstein. "If you ignore the signs, your loved one may face potential safety concerns, such as unsafe driving, not paying bills on time, not taking medications as prescribed and even being vulnerable to financial scams by a stranger, in person or by someone over the phone. Ignoring the signs is not doing your loved one a favor."
There really aren't any "self tests" you can do to see if Alzheimer's is knocking at the door, but primary care doctors and neurologists have a battery of cognitive/neuropsychological tests they can do. They can also use brain imaging and interview your family members and friends.