How do you know if your parent has Alzheimer's disease (AD) or 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 neurodegerative disease? Not necessarily. Only a doctor can diagnose the condition. Every person experiences different symptoms with different severities, but there are some main warning signs you can look for.
Early Indicators of Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia
Forgetfulness and 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 early onset 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 the person forgets information that they recently learned. They have trouble remembering important dates and events and they ask for the same information over and over again. 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. Your mom or dad may have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before. Individuals may forget where they are or how they got there. They might have difficulty understanding that an event happened in the past or will be occurring in the future, versus something that is happening in the present. They can lose track of the seasons and the general passage of time.
A person with AD may begin to put things in increasingly unusual places. Car and house keys tend to elude everyone from time to time, but finding lost keys in the freezer could indicate a more serious problem. They 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 perceived thief.
Difficulty Doing Familiar Tasks
This condition also affects the ability to do normal, everyday tasks. People may have trouble 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 abilities related to vision as well, such as depth perception, judging distance and seeing colors. This can lead to an increase in perceived clumsiness, accidents 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 conversation or while writing. For example, they say "what-cha-ma-call-it" instead of eyeglasses, or call a watch a "hand-clock." This confusion can cause them to stop abruptly in the middle of sentences or conversations as well.
Problems with Simple Math
People in the early stages may have difficulty working with numbers, including simple math problems they have done their entire lives. They may struggle when balancing their checkbook or performing simple addition and subtraction calculations.
Look for changes in their decision-making abilities, rational thought processing and judgment skills. A person who has made poor or risky decisions all of their life probably does not have a medical condition causing these behaviors. But dementia could be the culprit in a situation where a once logical decision maker who carefully weighed all the options and made informed decisions suddenly begins exhibiting poor judgment.
Personality Changes and Mood Swings
Individuals might exhibit changes in personality and sudden mood swings. They could become fearful, suspicious, depressed or anxious. A once confident person might become tentative and shy. They may be easily upset at home and 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 over and over again, and not their brushing teeth, can point to this disease. 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.
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 situations where they have to be around others in order to avoid drawing attention to their memory lapses or communication difficulties. 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.
Doctors will only diagnose dementia only if two or more brain functions, such as memory and language skills, are significantly impaired without loss of consciousness. If you think someone you love may have Alzheimer's disease, contact your doctor immediately.