Your senior loved one seems lethargic, can’t recall the discussion you had a few days ago, and acts quite grumpy about simple matters.
This may sound like the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Until you pause to think: dad has always been rather argumentative and irascible. He never could recall where he left his keys, his cap, or any number of other items. And he prefers watching a ballgame to getting his doctor-recommended exercise.
In other words: he’s just the same as he’s always been, only older.
Yet he might be exhibiting the earliest symptoms of dementia, which is why it’s so important to know what the core symptoms are, and to have a medical professional — ideally someone who specializes in geriatric care and/or brain health — examine your senior loved one to determine whether these behaviors are normal for him, or might signal the start of cognitive decline.
This summer is the perfect moment to take the next step for your loved one’s well being: June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, making it the ideal time to learn more about cognitive health. Globally, more than 50 million people are living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
What is Dementia?
Although “dementia” is often used interchangeably with terms such as Alzheimer’s disease or memory loss, it’s actually an umbrella category of brain diseases that includes more than 100 types of memory disorders.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most prevalent form of dementia, comprising 60 to 80 percent of all dementia diagnoses.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia refers to a collection of symptoms, such as:
- short-term memory loss
- language deficits
- poor judgment
- changes in behavior
These changes collectively signal cognitive impairment. Dementia is frequently (and incorrectly) referred to as senility or senile dementia, which makes it sound like a normal part of aging — and that’s definitely not the case.
Early Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease Or Other Dementias
- Changes in personality or mood. If your senior loved one has always been a bit of a curmudgeon, surliness in old age isn’t necessarily a sign of impending dementia. On the other hand, if your mild-mannered and friendly mother starts acting aggressively, or becomes paranoid that someone is taking her belongings, it’s likely a warning sign of brain changes that could signal Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
- Conversational misfires. It’s frustrating to all of us to feel the word we want is just out of reach, on the tip of our tongue. This is normal, age-related memory loss. On the other hand, calling objects by the wrong name (e.g., a “plug place” for a socket, or “that thing for my mouth” for a toothbrush), repeating a story in the same conversation, or suddenly stopping in the middle of a conversation, are all early signs something is amiss with mental processing.
- Excessive visual cues. While all of us forget information from time to time, or misplace our keys or eyeglasses, someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s may forget new information after learning it, lose track of important dates, names, and events, or rely heavily on posted reminders for everyday information. In the heartrending movie Lovely, Still, expertly portrayed by veteran actors Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, Landau, as Robert, has Post-it notes all over his bathroom telling him what medications to take and when, as well as reminders throughout the house to help him manage his day.
- Problem solving fails. Is your senior loved one reluctant to do the intricate jigsaw puzzles he used to love, or to play cards with his friends? Is grandma suddenly unwilling to bake her favorite cookies for the grandkids? It might be the senior in question has forgotten the rules of the game, or is having trouble following a recipe, and rather than admit this, he or she simply avoids the issue. Again, this may be a normal aspect of aging for your loved one, might indicate another health issue — or could signal the beginning of dementia.
- Social withdrawal. Difficulties with problem solving can also lead to social isolation. Instead of meeting a friend for lunch, someone with early Alzheimer’s decides to stay in and watch TV, because there’s less risk of making mistakes or not knowing how to act.
- Visual changes. Does a senior who used to check books out of the library every week now prefer audio programs? This might be because reading has become more difficult. Brain changes that cause memory loss also make it harder to decipher the print on a page, judge distances, and tell colors apart. It’s crucial to be aware that these changes can make driving more dangerous for someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
- Confusing time and place. It’s normal to occasionally forget what day it is or to forget someone’s birthday (much to the celebrant’s chagrin), but becoming confused about an upcoming event that isn’t happening immediately, repeatedly asking when Cindy’s party is taking place, or becoming easily lost, are all early indicators of a problem.
- Mismanaging money. If calculating a tip or balancing the checkbook start to become challenging, make sure the problem is not visual impairment unrelated to cognitive decline. The inability to manage a budget or balance a checkbook, for example, are likely signs of cognitive impairment, especially if the senior previously handled these tasks with ease.
- Loss of initiative. If someone is uncertain about time and place, having visual problems, or uncertain if they can trust those closest to them, they may find it equally difficult to make decisions, or to act spontaneously. These can all be signs of early Alzheimer’s disease.
- Poor judgment. Finally, overall bad judgment can be an early sign of dementia, assuming this individual’s judgment has previously been sound. Giving money to telephone scammers, forgetting to shower, or dressing inappropriately for the weather are all examples of poor judgment calls.
Because Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia usually begin their insidious attack on brain health years or even decades before symptoms appear, it’s essential to receive regular, comprehensive check-ups that test for brain health along with physical health.