As we get older, it’s normal to become more forgetful. Recollecting the name that goes with a familiar face, finding the right word in conversation, locating a misplaced set of car keys, or recalling the reason for entering a room can become more challenging with age. Oftentimes, people describe these common memory lapses as “Alzheimer’s moments.”
But it’s critical to distinguish between typical age-related forgetfulness and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease—a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder.
Recognizing and heeding the early warning signs of this devastating form of dementia can help affected people reap the greatest benefit from treatment, maintain their independence longer, and take a more active role in planning for their future care and support.
Here are some common Alzheimer’s warning signs to watch out for:
Persistent and progressive memory loss
In contrast to normal age-related memory lapses—such as temporarily forgetting the name of an acquaintance—Alzheimer’s-related memory loss tends to be more persistent and troubling and becomes worse over time. Some signs to watch for include forgetting recently acquired information; forgetting important dates, appointments, or events (and not recalling them later); repeating the same questions or comments over and over; misplacing possessions in peculiar locations; and forgetting the names of loved ones or everyday objects.
Problems with speaking or writing
Beyond simply struggling to find the right word from time to time, people with Alzheimer’s may develop more profound difficulty with vocabulary in speech or writing. They may have a hard time joining or continuing a conversation, identifying or giving the right name to common objects (the Alzheimer’s Association provides the example of someone calling a watch a “hand clock”), and reading and writing. Similarly, they may develop problems with abstract concepts like numbers, which can lead to difficulty with balancing the checkbook, paying bills, and managing other aspects of finance.
Problems with familiar daily tasks
People with Alzheimer’s typically experience greater and greater difficulty performing routine activities, particularly those that involve multiple steps, such as preparing a familiar meal, remembering the rules of a game, or using a familiar tool or appliance. As the disease progresses, even basic activities of daily living, such as bathing and dressing, may become difficult.
Time and place disorientation
It’s perfectly normal as we age to have difficulty remembering the day of the week or month but then recalling what it is shortly thereafter. People with Alzheimer’s, however, may lose the ability to remember the day, month, season, year, or even the stage of life they’re in. Also, spatial and visual disorientation associated with the disease can lead to a sense of confusion or being lost in familiar surroundings.
Exercising poor judgment
Alzheimer’s also has a negative influence on judgment and decision-making ability. For example, someone with the disease might go outside in the middle of winter with bare feet and wearing only pajamas or walk across the street through heavy traffic instead of at a crosswalk. Or, someone who was once an astute money manager might begin to exercise poor financial judgment, such as giving away money that he or she needs to cover expenses or simply doesn’t have.
Mood and personality changes
The havoc that Alzheimer’s wreaks in the brain can cause people with the disease to experience a range of emotional issues, such as anxiety, depression, fearfulness, or mood swings. They may also withdraw from social situations they once enjoyed and exhibit behavioral changes, such as increased irritability, suspiciousness, or aggressiveness.
No Alzheimer’s patient is typical
It’s important to be aware that no two Alzheimer’s patients experience the exact same symptoms in precisely the same order. If you observe any of the above symptoms in yourself or a loved one, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with a physician.