In April of 2011, new guidelines for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease were issued for the first time in 27 years. This was prompted by encouraging research that found reliable links between the disease and certain biological markers in brain tissue and spinal fluid. The Alzheimer's Association and the National Institute on Aging hopes changing this criterion will foster scientific protocol for earlier detection and more effective treatment.
This degenerative disease, affecting one in eight people over the age of 65, can be terrifying. A simple moment of forgetfulness can leave us frazzled. Do I have Alzheimer's? Is this how it starts? Like it or not, the new guidelines may result in simple brain imaging scans to determine your risk -- even before exhibiting signs of mental decline.
But for now diagnosing Alzheimer's starts by noticing the signs and symptoms. Early detection of Alzheimer's is key, as it provides a valuable window of time to better understand this disease, establish a solid caregivers plan and seek early intervention. Below are some suggestions for spotting early indicators and what to do if you suspect that you or a loved one may be suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
10 Symptoms of Alzheimer's
Often, early stages of Alzheimer's disease are only noticeable to those who know the person well (though often denied or hidden by the person). If Aunt Sally is notorious for forgetting where she parks her car, it might not warrant a visit to the doctor's office; for others, this mishap could serve as a red flag if coupled with other changes. Beth Kallmyer, MSW and Senior Director of Constituent Services at Alzheimer's Association says, "Our brains are amazing and we can compensate for a lot of things, which we often see happen in the early stages of Alzheimer's." While some situations can be chalked up to simply having a "senior moment," stress-induced absentmindedness or being overtired, one or more of these symptoms that persist and worsen over time are reason for concern. "Symptoms of Alzheimer's are so individualized. The key is to notice something that's changed; a new behavior that makes one say, 'Mom would've never done this in the past'," explains Kallmyer. Below are Alzheimer's Associations' '10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer's' along with a few examples Kallmyer gives to help foster early detection.
- Memory Loss that Disrupts Daily Life
Example: You forget what time that you need to pick up the grandkids from school even after asking several times.
- Challenges in Planning or Solving Problems
Example: You can't figure out how to navigate the grocery store that you've frequented for years.
- Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks at Home, at Work or at Leisure
Example: You have to refer to a recipe card for your famous lasagna that you've made from memory for the past decade.
- Confusion with Time or Place
Example: You get lost on your way to the hair salon where you get your hair done weekly, or have no logical explanation why you're an hour late when you arrive.
- Trouble Understanding Visual Images and Spatial Relationships
Example: Glancing in your side-view mirror while driving, you think the car behind you is much further back than in reality, or often misjudge the depth of the curb, causing a misstep.
- New Problems with Words in Speaking or Writing
Example: Instead of asking someone to pass the salt, you gesture to the shaker on the table or refer to it as "the white thing over there."
- Misplacing Things and Losing the Ability to Retrace Steps
Example: You misplace your wallet, later discovering it in a cupboard with your kitchen pots and pans (and even then, can't recall ever putting it there).
- Decreased or Poor Judgment
Example: You give large sums of money to telemarketers, which you would've never done in the past.
- Withdrawal from Work or Social Activities
Example: You stop going to your weekly bridge game with friends that you've enjoyed for years.
- Changes in Mood and Personality
Example: Typically calm-mannered, you find yourself quickly losing your temper over a glass of spilled milk.
Diagnosing Dementia: What to Do if You Think it's Alzheimer's
If some of the situations above sound familiar, it's time to seek help. Dementia, or loss of brain function, occurs in tandem with several diseases and Alzheimer's is one possibility. Here are three important things to remember:
- Don't Panic
While diseases causing dementia are often degenerative, worsening over time, many symptoms listed above can also be associated with reversible conditions, such as depression, thyroid problems or adverse drug interactions.
- Talk to a Doctor
Your primary care physician or local Alzheimer's Association can provide you with a list of specialists that can help you determine possible causes of cognitive decline. Along with discussing symptoms, a physician will evaluate family medical history, past and current medical problems, and conduct physical, mental, and neurological exams, in addition to blood tests and brain imaging. Your physician can also help you know what to expect in the upcoming years.
- Have Hope
This disease progresses at different rates for each individual and researchers are still working on a cure. Drugs do currently exist that treat some of the symptoms and possibly slow the progress of this debilitating disease.
Family Planning and Caregiving
Even when suspected, an Alzheimer's diagnosis can feel overwhelming. After the initial shock subsides, the first step is to arm yourself with information about the progression of the disease. This will not only help you prepare for what's ahead, it will mitigate frustration when certain situations arise.
- Create a Plan
The early stages of Alzheimer's is also a good time to start talking to family members about a care plan. Discuss care options with your loved ones and determine whom they would like to oversee things, such as health-care needs and financial and estate planning. A geriatric care manager, social worker, or a Care.com senior care advisor can help you and your family begin this care planning process.
- Divvy Up Tasks
It's vital to share responsibilities of the senior caregiving role, whether between family members or hiring outside help with duties ranging from nursing care to meal delivery and laundry service.
- Hire Help
These tasks can seem particularly daunting when the caregiver does not live nearby. What can you do remotely? Engage friends and neighbors to help check in on your loved one and possibly line up a home-aide or senior nursing facility for when the later stages of the disease become apparent (there are wait-lists to keep in mind). You can also be a valuable part of the care-giving team from afar by handling tasks such as dealing with finances or simply being an empathic ear for a sibling that's the primary caregiver, notes Mary Stehle, LCSW, Senior Care Advisor at Care.com.
Learn more about Alzheimer's Disease in Seniors.
Get tips for handling difficult behaviors in Alzheimer's patients.