Recognizing Early Signs of Alzheimer's Disease

By Sally Wadyka. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

It may be one of the saddest and loneliest diseases on the planet. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, an estimated 5.1 million adults are currently suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive and degenerative disorder that attacks — and eventually kills — neurons in the brain.

The main symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease usually include memory loss, confusion and mood changes, but these aren’t the only symptoms. What’s more is that the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s can vary from person to person, and a symptom like memory loss doesn’t necessarily signify Alzheimer’s.

“Early signs of the disease [differ], as the clinical presentation of Alzheimer’s is not uniform in all people,” says physician Jagan Pillai, M.D., an Alzheimer’s expert at Cleveland Clinic. “The first signs of Alzheimer’s are variable but may include progressively worsening difficulty [in] handling routine tasks and difficulty with short-term memory.”

Heed these Alzheimer’s warning signs

Occasional forgetfulness, misplacing an item or feeling confused are things that happen to most of us at one time or another. Some may call it a natural part of the aging process; fatigue, stress and lack of attention can also be to blame for these once-in-a-while lapses, says Pillai. But if any of the following symptoms occur on a regular basis, there may be cause for concern:

  • Short-term memory loss, such as asking for the same information over and over again;
  • Confusion about time and place, such as finding yourself losing track of dates, forgetting what season it is or having trouble understanding something if it is not already happening at that exact moment;
  • Difficulty performing everyday actions, such as brushing your teeth, driving to a familiar location, getting dressed or using an appliance like the microwave;
  • Grasping for appropriate words, such as not being able to complete a sentence, calling things by the wrong name, drifting off while speaking and not knowing how to continue or losing track of a conversation;
  • Vision problems, such as difficulty perceiving color or contrast, understanding images or judging distances (which can make driving more dangerous);
  • Putting things in unusual places, such as stashing your car keys in the fridge and then not being able to find them later;
  • Changes in mood or personality, such as feeling more apathetic, depressed, irritable or even paranoid;
  • Poor judgment, such as giving away large sums of money to someone over the phone (not just making a bad decision every once in a while, but significant changes in judgment); or
  • Difficulty performing familiar mental tasks, such as newfound trouble working with numbers, following a familiar recipe or keeping track of monthly payments.

Getting a diagnosis and help

While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, getting diagnosed and treated as early as possible can still help. “Several things can help slow the progression, including controlling diabetes, hypertension and cholesterol, plus good nutrition, physical exercise and cognitively stimulating activities,” says Pillai.

Besides maintaining a healthy brain and lifestyle, there are some important issues to address after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to talking to your doctor about symptoms and signs of progression, ask about medications you should or should not be taking and about the possibility of joining a clinical trial studying new treatment options.

Take the next steps

If you or a loved one is noticing several of these symptoms and they seem to be getting progressively worse, do not delay in scheduling a cognitive assessment to potentially rule out normal signs of aging. Afterward, if you receive bad news as either a patient or a caregiver, experts recommend making the post-diagnosis transition easier by putting some of the following strategies into place:

  • Reassess safety issues in the home to prevent accidents and possible hospitalization.
  • Create a clear structure in the daily routine for extended independence before the full effects of Alzheimer’s occur.
  • Put plans in place for financial, legal, medical and long-term care.
  • Use body language and other visual cues to help communicate. This is especially important for someone who is starting to have trouble with verbal skills.
  • Do cognitively stimulating activities together, such as puzzles, word games or wading through old family photos and helping each other reminisce with stories and memories.

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