November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, and education about the disease is an important part of increasing awareness about those affected by the disease. Here, we highlight some of the subtle signs of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, affects nearly 6.2 million people in the United States. Dementia, a general term for memory loss and cognitive decline, is a progressive disease during which symptoms gradually worsen throughout a number of years. In the most severe stages, people with dementia can lose the ability to carry on a conversation, respond to their surroundings, and are unable to complete basic daily tasks. While Alzheimer’s has no cure, there are treatments that can delay clinical decline. Early Alzheimer’s symptoms can be subtle and hard to identify. However, recognizing symptoms of dementia-related behaviors can help you or your loved one seek treatment sooner.
Recognizing Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
Like the rest of our bodies, our brains also change as we age. Often, these changes are mild or even unnoticeable. However, some older adults develop abnormal neural decline. Alzheimer’s typically begins in the part of the brain that affects learning and can lead to life-affecting changes. Below are some of the most common early Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Short-term memory changes
Memory loss is a common symptom of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. You may notice your loved one forgetting what they had for breakfast or what they did earlier in the day. They may also find it difficult to recall information they’ve recently learned or rely on memory aids, like writing notes and memos, to keep track of things. While most people lose some memory acuity as they age, increased or frequent confusion is a red flag.
Difficulty with problem-solving
A person with early Alzheimer’s symptoms might find it difficult to follow instructions, such as wayfinding directions, simple puzzles, paying bills, or adding tips to a restaurant tab.
Growing difficulty with familiar tasks
Regular tasks might become increasingly challenging for people with dementia—for example, cooking dinner, getting to a familiar location, or remembering regularly scheduled activities.
Problems with speaking and writing
As Alzheimer’s progresses, expect your loved one to have difficulty communicating. Staying engaged and following along in conversations can become arduous, and you may find your loved one removing themselves from conversations and seeming socially remote.
People with dementia might forget where they’ve placed items they often use, such as the telephone, remote control, important documents, car keys, or their wallet. This can lead to frustration, and they might even accuse people of stealing.
Mood and personality changes
Depression and sudden shifts in moods are also symptoms of dementia. You might notice a change in reasoning skills or lifelong personality traits. For example, if your loved one is usually patient, you might notice them becoming agitated more than normal.
Disengagement from friends and family
You might notice your loved one becoming uninterested in socializing with other people or becoming withdrawn. Those with dementia might also stop doing their favorite hobbies or avoid being with others.
According to John Hopkins Medicine, between 40–50% of people with Alzheimer’s disease experience depression compared to the 7% of the general population. Both the shock of diagnosis and physical changes in the brain can contribute to feelings of depression. Those with Alzheimer’s disease who are depressed will tend to be apathetic, irritable, and suffer from changes in sleeping patterns. However, they are less likely to be at risk of suicide than depressed people living without Alzheimer’s disease.
Anxiety and agitation
Anxiety and agitation are common in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, as people begin to recognize their losses and the severity of their illness. Later on, people may become anxious about being left alone or abandoned.
Disruptions in sleep patterns are common in the early stages of the disease and can even be an early warning sign. Researchers believe that the changes in the brain due to the disease can leave amyloid plaque deposits, which are linked to poor sleeping habits.
Navigating the Diagnostic Process
If you see two or more of the warning signs listed above in yourself or a loved one, it’s important to visit a dementia center or contact a healthcare provider—a primary care physician, geriatrician, or neurologist. While each person’s situation can look different, a healthcare provider will likely perform a series of tests to provide a diagnosis. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, here’s what you can expect during the diagnostic process.
- Medical history. Your healthcare provider will ask you to supply a list of your current and past medical problems, family medical history and diet, and a list of your current and past medications. Your doctor may also ask to speak to your family members to determine if they’ve noticed any changes in your behavior, including your memory and thinking.
- Physical exam. Your doctor should conduct a physical exam to assess your blood pressure, temperature, pulse, and any other procedures that help evaluate your overall health.
- Mental cognitive status tests. A doctor or neuropsychologist may perform a series of tests designed to evaluate memory, thinking, and simple problem-solving abilities. These tests help identify a baseline or changes in executive function, judgment, attention, and language, all of which can be helpful in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.
- Depression screening. You’ll be asked a series of short questions that can help determine the presence of depression, which can cause memory and thinking problems similar to Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia.
- Laboratory tests. To rule out any infections and monitor kidney and liver function, you might be asked to supply blood and urine samples.
- Brain imaging tests. MRI and CT scans allow doctors to look at the structure of the brain and see how it’s functioning. These scans can help rule out other conditions that can cause dementia-like symptoms, including brain tumors, aneurysms, stroke, or fluid buildup in the brain.
Living with Alzheimer’s Disease at Inspīr
At Inspīr, we provide specialized memory care in our Oceana Memory Care. Oceana includes personalized, wellness-focused lifestyle programming, customized care plans, and a highly trained staff—all in a therapeutic and secure setting. Our evidence-based approach to memory care is integrative, intentional, interdisciplinary, intimate, and individualized, enabling our residents to get the most out of every moment, every day. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s, our Guide may be a useful tool for preparing for what is ahead and putting a plan in place. We offer support groups, specialized medical care, and dementia-focused activities for residents living with memory loss.