Recognizing the early signs of Alzheimer's in a loved one is crucial for early diagnosis and intervention, allowing for better management of the condition and improved quality of life. As a degenerative condition, it often begins with subtle changes in cognition, memory, and behavior, gradually worsening over time. Wessam Labib, MD, MPH, medical director of geriatric medicine at Loma Linda University Health, provides a few signs to look for in those close to you.
“Most Alzheimer’s dementia patients are not aware of their deficiency,” Labib says. “Ignoring signs in your loved ones is the worst thing you can do for them.”
One of the most prominent early signs of Alzheimer's is memory loss. While occasional memory lapses are normal, individuals with Alzheimer's often forget recently learned information and struggle to recall important dates, events, or names. They may rely heavily on memory aids or loved ones to compensate for their forgetfulness. Pay attention if your loved one repeatedly asks the same question or seems more forgetful than usual.
Differentiating age-related memory decline and Alzheimer’s
Labib says age-related memory decline includes forgetting things more than usual but does not affect the ability to function. People with Alzheimer's disease often face challenges in completing tasks they used to handle with ease. They may have trouble driving to familiar locations, following a recipe, or managing finances. These difficulties arise due to impairments in problem-solving, planning, and organizational skills.
“Flags can begin to be raised when we notice our loved ones are forgetting things they could manage before,” Labib says. “But you must have a baseline and that will vary from person to person.”
If a loved one forgets how to balance a checkbook but never handled finances, this may not be an appropriate factor. If they have driven a car for decades and suddenly their memory affects their driving, this is not normal aging.
Language and communication problems:
Individuals with Alzheimer's may struggle to find the right words, follow a conversation, or express themselves clearly. They may frequently pause or have difficulty continuing a train of thought during discussions. Additionally, they may substitute words with incorrect or nonsensical terms. Notice if your loved one has increased difficulty in communicating or if they frequently lose their train of thought.
Disorientation and confusion:
Confusion about time, places, and events is another common sign of Alzheimer's. Individuals may get lost in familiar surroundings, forget where they are or how they got there, or become disoriented with time, such as mistaking the current season or year.
Changes in Mood and Personality:
Alzheimer's can bring about notable changes in mood, behavior, and personality. They may become increasingly irritable, anxious, or depressed. These mood changes may occur without any apparent reason and can be more pronounced in the later stages of the disease. Additionally, they may exhibit uncharacteristic apathy towards hobbies, social activities, or personal grooming habits.
Depression can cause memory loss similar to dementia, but the biggest difference is between registering information and recalling information. People with depression have trouble registering information, while people with dementia have difficulty recalling information that should be familiar.
Depression can affect memory and cause one to grow shy and isolated. But people with dementia may also become introverted as they worry they’ll embarrass themselves in social situations by showing their deficiencies. People with dementia worry they can’t follow a conversation or forget entirely about a conversation they contributed to.
“Alzheimer’s is not reversible and must be treated early,” Labib says. “Medications can assist with slowing the progression, but these signs have to be recognized.”
June is Brain Health Month. If you are concerned about your or a loved one’s brain health, have an honest discussion with your primary care provider about the appropriateness of a referral to Geriatric Medicine.