It’s difficult to think about growing older without considering the specter of Alzheimer’s disease. This brain disorder slowly robs your memories, along with your ability to think and function. It isn’t a normal part of aging, though age is the greatest known risk factor.
It is the most common form of dementia, with an estimated 6.5 million Americans over the age of 65 living with the disease in 2022.
The disease, which causes the brain to shrink, becomes worse over time. Early stages are marked by mild memory lapses. In late stages, the entire body loses most of its ability to function. Diagnosis is easier in patients with moderate and advanced Alzheimer’s disease, but is more challenging in early stages and the “preclinical” phase.
Increasing awareness about the disease offers a wide range of benefits. It can encourage people to seek medical treatment sooner, help family members prepare themselves to care for loved ones and boost society’s awareness of the need to improve the quality of healthcare.
Many of the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s first appear as little more than natural aging. But as they begin to occur more frequently, it may become apparent that something more is going on. Here are seven signs to watch for:
Memory loss is the strongest indicator of the disease and becomes more noticeable as it progresses. It’s not unusual to forget something on your shopping list or where you last put your cell phone. But more concerning:
- Forgetting conversations
- Neglecting to show up for appointments or events
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Forgetting the names of family members
- Repeatedly asking the same question
Struggling with Daily Tasks
Completing simple daily tasks often becomes more difficult. Bills go unpaid, a house that’s typically well-kept becomes cluttered and dusty, and food is left to spoil in the refrigerator. This may be particularly noticeable with tasks requiring a sequence of steps – for example, cooking or playing a game.
Loss of Interest in Social Activities, Hobbies and Work
As the disease progresses, it becomes increasingly difficulty to take part in conversations. Rising anxiety also may make it more difficult to be around other people. When this happens, you or a loved one may withdraw from activities once considered rewarding. A part-time job may be abandoned. Membership in a bridge club may be dropped. Politics and favorite sports teams may no longer hold any interest.
Changes in Sleep Patterns
As many as one in four dementia patients experience some type of sleep disturbance. This includes excessive sleepiness during the day and insomnia during the night. Frequent awakenings could occur during normal sleep hours, and you may find yourself routinely waking up earlier than expected in the morning. It may also spark sundowning – a state of confusion, agitation and anxiety during the late afternoon and early evening hours.
Mood and Personality Changes
The disease may cause what appears to be a personality transformation. Someone once thought of as care-free and unfrazzled may become surly, sad, suspicious or anxious. Other changes include:
- Mood swings
- Distrust of others
- Loss of inhibitions
- Unexpected use of vulgar language
- Inappropriate outbursts of anger
- Dressing inappropriately
Problems with Words or Speaking
As you grow older, it’s not uncommon to occasionally have difficulty finding the right word. But with Alzheimer’s, the problem becomes far more pronounced. You may struggle to name an object you’re holding in your hand. It may be difficult to follow along with a conversation. You may use substitutes for words (“the thing you drive” instead of “car.”) Or you may use related words (“wristwatch” instead of “clock.”)
Generally, if you forget where you put something (your keys for example), you spend a few minutes retracing your steps to figure out where you left it. With Alzheimer’s, you may lose that ability, leaving you with no way to find the lost item. You may even have no idea when you last had it in your hand. As it begins to happen more frequently, these losses will impact your ability to enjoy daily life.
If you or a loved one are demonstrating these signs, it may be time to visit a neurologist or memory clinic for testing and diagnosis. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are many ways to improve the quality of life and well-being of both patients and caregivers.
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