According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 6 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. That figure is projected to more than double to 13.2 million by 2050. Many more Americans are, and will be, affected through having a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. As anyone who has loved or cared for a dementia patient knows, Alzheimer’s is devastating; most people who have watched a parent suffer are understandably alert to potential warning signs of Alzheimer’s in themselves.
It is common for people to worry that minor forgetfulness means that Alzheimer’s is on the horizon, especially when it runs in their family. However, there are differences between normal changes associated with age and those that come with dementia. Here are 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
1. Memory Loss that Disrupts Daily Life
Many of us panic when we struggle to remember the name of someone we have been introduced to or the name of that great restaurant we went to on vacation. Such lapses by themselves are not warning signs of Alzheimer’s, especially if you later remember the name (and the fact that you had trouble remembering earlier).
Worthy of more concern is when an older person forgets information they recently learned, forgets important dates and appointments, and asks the same question over and over again, not realizing that they asked just a few minutes prior.
2. Difficulty with Problem Solving and Planning
It’s common to make a math error when adding up checks for a bank deposit or when reconciling a checkbook with a bank statement. But when someone struggles with how to work with numbers, such as forgetting how to pay a bill or even to add a column of numbers, that’s a bigger problem and a potential warning sign. Difficulty completing a familiar multi-step process, like following a simple recipe, falls into this category as well.
3. Challenges in Completing Familiar Tasks
Technology is changing more quickly than ever, and needing help with the settings on the new DVR does not mean that you or a loved one has Alzheimer’s. Pay attention, however, if someone struggles to complete common tasks they had previously handled without difficulty. Examples include getting lost driving to their local grocery store, forgetting how to play a favorite game, or difficulty remembering how to write a check.
4. Confusion About Time or Place
Plenty of people, regardless of age, find themselves thinking that it’s Wednesday when it’s really Tuesday or Thursday, or they write the wrong date on a check from time to time. Those aren’t worrisome issues, especially if you catch your error.
However, it is common for people with Alzheimer’s to lose track of time in a more significant way. They may forget what year or season it is or struggle to remember where they are, how they got there, or how long they have been there. Increased confusion in the late afternoon or evening is common with Alzheimer’s disease, which is called Sundowner’s Syndrome or simple late-day confusion.
5. Difficulty Processing Visual Images and Understanding Spatial Relationships
Many medical conditions can cause visual problems as we age, but needing stronger reading glasses or cataract surgery are not signs of Alzheimer’s. However, some visual issues are associated specifically with Alzheimer’s, such as difficulty detecting contrast or color or judging how far away something is. These often make it harder for an older person to drive safely.
Spatial relationships are also challenging for people with Alzheimer’s disease. A common cognitive test is asking the patient to draw the face of a clock with the hands in a certain position. People without cognitive issues typically space the numbers evenly around the interior of a circle; people with Alzheimer’s may bunch the numbers all together in one area, leaving most of the clock blank.
6. Challenges with Speaking or Writing
From time to time, everyone struggles to find the right word for something they want to describe, but when language challenges are more persistent, it could be a warning sign of Alzheimer’s. It may be difficult for an Alzheimer’s patient to follow or participate in a conversation; they may lose their train of thought and stop talking or repeat something they just said.
It is also common for a person with dementia to forget the name of a common object. For instance, they may forget the word for knife and call it a “food cutter.”
7. Misplacing Items and Struggling to Retrace Steps
It’s not unusual (nor a sign of cognitive trouble) to misplace your keys, cell phone, or coffee cup. When that happens, most of us backtrack and retrace our steps until we find the missing object. People living with Alzheimer’s lose the ability to retrace their steps. They may “put something away” in an unusual location and be unable to find it—like putting their house keys in the refrigerator.
8. Difficulty Exercising Good Judgment
Everyone makes less-than-ideal choices sometimes. But for people living with Alzheimer’s, lapses in judgment can seriously endanger them or someone else. Examples include leaving a small child unattended, leaving a pot of food on a hot stove burner, or leaving the door to their house or apartment wide open after leaving or entering. They may also forget to bathe or groom themselves or exercise poor judgment with money.
9. Withdrawal from Usual Activities
Because of some of the problems above, like difficulty holding a conversation or completing familiar tasks, work, hobbies, and social activities become more challenging to navigate for someone with Alzheimer’s. As a result, they may withdraw from those increasingly uncomfortable situations.
10. Mood or Personality Changes
It’s normal as we age to become “set in our ways” and to feel grumpy if our usual routine gets disrupted. But with Alzheimer’s, it’s not uncommon for someone to become suspicious, or even paranoid, irritable, anxious, confused, or depressed with a change of routine. Being in unfamiliar situations may make those emotions worse.
If you notice one or more of these warning signs of Alzheimer’s in someone you love, don’t panic, but do try to help them seek assessment and cognitive screening from a professional; ignoring your concerns (or theirs) won’t make them go away. Speaking to a doctor with your family member will help to either rule out the onset of Alzheimer’s or give you concrete next steps.