Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month: How do you spot it? Here’s a look at the warning signs and symptoms
Memory problems are typically one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s, though initial symptoms may vary from person to person. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses, people experience greater memory loss and other cognitive difficulties. “For many, a decline in non-memory aspects of cognition, such as word-finding, vision/spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment, may signal the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” explains the National Institute on Aging.
The disease typically progresses slowly and in stages: mild (sometimes called early-stage), moderate and severe (sometimes called late-stage). Since Alzheimer’s affects people in different ways, each person may experience symptoms — or progress through the stages — differently.
Do memory problems always mean Alzheimer’s?
Many people worry about becoming forgetful. They think forgetfulness is the first sign of Alzheimer's disease. But not all people with memory problems have Alzheimer’s. Other causes for memory problems can include aging, medical conditions, or another type of dementia. Some people may also have a condition called mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. It can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, but not everyone with MCI will develop the disease. People with MCI can still take care of themselves and do their normal activities. MCI memory problems may include losing things often, forgetting to go to events or appointments, and having more trouble coming up with words than other people the same age.
Health experts, therefore, emphasize that it is important to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms and if a person notices them, he or she should not ignore them. If you are concerned about your memory or other thinking skills, talk to your doctor to find out the cause. “If you or someone you know has several or even most of the signs, it does not mean that you or they have Alzheimer’s disease. It is important to consult a health care provider when you or someone you know has concerns about memory loss, thinking skills, or behavioral change,” recommends the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, but there are medicines that can treat the symptoms of the disease. “Early and accurate diagnosis provides opportunities for you and your family to consider or review financial planning, develop advance directives, enroll in clinical trials, and anticipate care needs,” the agency explains.
So what are these signs?
Memory loss: Everyone has occasional memory lapses and it is normal to lose track of where you put your keys or forget the name of a person you have met earlier. But the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease persists and worsens, affecting the ability to function at work or home. This memory loss that disrupts daily life is not a typical part of aging.
Challenges in thinking, reasoning, and solving problems: The disease causes difficulty in concentrating and thinking, especially about concepts such as numbers. Multitasking is particularly difficult, and it may be challenging to manage finances, and balance checkbooks. Having trouble paying bills is possible. “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,” suggests the Alzheimer’s Association.
Finding it difficult to finish familiar tasks: People with Alzheimer’s may have problems doing once routine activities such as driving places, cooking, using a cell phone, and shopping. As the disease progresses, eventually, people with advanced Alzheimer’s may forget how to perform basic tasks such as dressing and bathing.
Confusion with time or place: Having trouble understanding an event that is happening later, or losing track of dates is another sign.
Difficulty understanding visual images and spatial relations: When people have trouble with balance or judging distance, when they start tripping over things at home, or spilling or dropping things more often, these could indicate Alzheimer’s.
Difficulty with language and problems with reading, and writing: A person with Alzheimer’s may have problems with finding the right word or losing his or her train of thought when speaking, understanding what words mean, and paying attention during long conversations.
Making poor judgments and decisions: The ability to make reasonable decisions and judgments in everyday situations will decline. And poor judgment will lead to bad decisions. For example, a person may make poor or uncharacteristic choices in social interactions or wear clothes that are inappropriate for the weather, or even become a victim of a scam. It may be more difficult to respond effectively to everyday problems, such as food burning on the stove.
Misplacing things: Placing car keys in the washer or dryer or not being able to retrace steps to find something could happen. “He or she may accuse others of stealing, especially as the disease progresses,” say experts.
Withdrawal from work or social activities: Not wanting to do activities one usually does or unable to keep up with what is happening may occur. “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,” explains the Alzheimer’s Association.
Changes in personality and behavior: Getting easily upset in common situations or being fearful or suspicious is a sign. Brain changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease can affect moods and behaviors and problems may include apathy, depression, being irritated or aggressive, as well as changes in sleeping habits. Hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia are also possible. People with advanced or severe Alzheimer’s cannot communicate and are completely dependent on others for their care. Near the end, the person may be in bed most or all of the time as the body shuts down.