How do you know if an aging loved one has Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or another form of dementia? If Dad continually forgets where he puts his keys or Mom seems to get easily confused these days, does it mean they have a progressive neurodegenerative disease? Not necessarily. Every person experiences different symptoms with different severities, but there are some basic warning signs you can look for.
Early Indicators of Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
- Forgetfulness and Short-Term Memory Loss
The most common symptom of most types of dementia is memory loss. However, just because Dad cannot remember where he put his shoes or calls the grandkids by the wrong names does not mean he has Alzheimer’s. We all forget the details of a conversation from time to time, but the early effects of this disease can cause a person to forget entire conversations that took place only moments ago. AD usually affects short-term memory first, meaning a person forgets information that they recently learned. Sufferers have trouble remembering important dates and events and often ask for the same information repeatedly. They may even lose the ability to recognize their family members.
- Lack of Concentration and Increased Confusion
Getting confused about times and places is a common indicator. Difficulty concentrating can make normal activities take much longer than they used to. Individuals may forget where they are or how they got there, or they may get lost trying to navigate to familiar places. They might have difficulty differentiating between events that happened in the past, those that will be occurring in the future, or things that are taking place in the present. They can lose track of the seasons and the general passage of time, causing them to show up for appointments or social plans at the wrong time or not at all.
- Losing Things
A person with AD may begin to put things in increasingly unusual places. Everyone tends to misplace their car and house keys from time to time, but finding “lost” keys in the freezer could indicate a more serious problem. A senior may lose things and be unable to use the simple method of retracing their steps to find the items. This situation can even escalate into accusations of theft when they cannot find a personal belonging that they have unknowingly misplaced. This can lead to paranoia, and they may react by placing their things in even more unusual hiding spots to foil the suspected thief.
- Difficulty Doing Familiar Tasks
This condition also affects one’s ability to do normal, everyday tasks. People may have trouble with coordination and remembering how to drive, cook a favorite recipe, or play a familiar game. They may start relying more on a spouse or family member to do things for them that they once enjoyed doing themselves. Symptoms can affect one’s visual abilities as well, such as depth perception, judging distance and seeing colors. These changes can cause family and friends to notice increased clumsiness, accidents, falls and other uncharacteristic mishaps.
- Language and Speaking Problems
AD affects how sufferers create and process language. They typically have trouble recalling the right words in conversations and while writing. Some seniors can compensate by using generic stand-in words like “thingy” or “what-cha-ma-call-it,” but others may create their own terms for objects or actions. For example, someone with dementia might call a watch a “hand clock.” This confusion and impaired word-finding ability can also cause them to stop abruptly in the middle of sentences or conversations.
- Problems with Simple Math
People in the early stages of dementia may have difficulty working with numbers, including simple math problems they have done their entire lives. They may struggle with balancing their checkbook or performing addition and subtraction calculations. Math doesn’t come easily to everyone, but the inability to complete basic, routine problems is a clear indicator that something is wrong.
- Poor Judgment
Look for changes in decision-making abilities, rational thought processes and judgment. A person who has made poor or risky decisions all their life probably does not have a medical condition causing these behaviors. However, dementia could be the culprit in a scenario where a logical person who used to carefully weigh all their options and make informed decisions suddenly begins exhibiting poor judgment. This could include falling for offers that are clearly scams, reckless spending or dressing inappropriately for the weather.
- Personality Changes and Mood Swings
Individuals might exhibit changes in personality and sudden mood swings. They could become fearful, suspicious, depressed or anxious. A confident person might become tentative and shy. They may be easily upset and become especially frustrated in new or public places where they are out of their comfort zone.
- Changes in Grooming and Personal Hygiene
Sudden or steadily declining attention to personal care, such as infrequent bathing, wearing the same clothes day after day, and not their brushing teeth, are common indicators of dementia. If a person kept their home immaculate all their life but suddenly stops cleaning and allows clutter to accumulate, it could be a cause for concern regarding their mental state.
- Withdrawing from Friends and Family
Finally, withdrawal from social opportunities and activities they once enjoyed can be a red flag. Affected individuals tend to dodge these situations to avoid drawing attention to their memory lapses or difficulty communicating. They are typically embarrassed by their inability to converse or perform tasks as they once did. Depression related to this change in abilities can also cause withdrawal from social situations.
If you notice any of these signs and think someone you love may have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, make a doctor’s appointment immediately. Early diagnosis is crucial for ruling out curable conditions that can mimic dementia, devising care and treatment strategies, and planning for the future.