In honor of Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, we’re going to take a little departure from Alzheimer’s prevention and focus on distinguishing the difference between normal memory changes and the more serious signs of dementia. We may not have a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but catching the early warning signs is still important.
We all have memory lapses from time to time—missed appointments, lost keys, forgotten birthdays… we joke about not being as young as we used to be, but the truth is that many factors can cause memory problems.
People of any age can experience intermittent brain fog and poor memory as a result of inadequate sleep, stress, poor hydration, skipped meals, certain chronic illnesses, certain medications, or just plain having way too much to keep track of. We also tend to notice a gradual decline in memory with aging.
Alzheimer’s is complex, and even the best researchers have yet to find the answers to our toughest questions about the disease. As the science suggests that prevention is one of our most powerful tools to help protect us from Alzheimer’s, early detection of dementia symptoms is also crucial. But how can you tell the difference between normal changes in memory (or fatigue-induced forgetfulness) and something more serious?
Remember, any change in memory and thinking, at any age, is worth getting checked by your doctor. It’s important to eliminate any other causes of cognitive changes, such as nutrient deficiencies, thyroid disease, brain tumor or injury, and other causes that may be treatable. If you notice a significant change in your mental function, please contact your doctor for further evaluation.
If you do in fact have Alzheimer’s disease, early diagnosis is still crucial. It helps give you and your loved ones the time you need to plan for the future, and it allows you to take steps to manage symptoms more effectively. From a research perspective, the earlier we can detect brain changes, the better chance we have of discovering a treatment that actually works. Scientists are working hard to create innovative diagnostic tools that would allow us to treat Alzheimer’s before symptoms even emerge.
It should be noted, however, that by the time dementia symptoms are present, changes in the brain have likely already occurred (and may have begun up to a decade prior)¹.
Let’s start with discussing common symptoms and distinguishing them from their normal counterparts. Here are 10 early signs of AD, according to the Alzheimer’s Association².
1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
Minimal memory issues, such as forgetting an appointment on occasion or misplacing an item from time to time, are completely normal. In such cases, perhaps we realized we had forgotten our appointment time, or we were able to retrace our steps to find the item.
However, if these memory issues are consistent and impede our everyday routine, that may be a red flag. In reference to the examples listed above, this would mean that we forgot we had an appointment but failed to realize we did, or that we were unable to retrace our steps to find the item we lost.
Other signs of concerning memory loss include struggling to recall recently learned information and repeating questions during the same conversation².
2. Challenges in planning and problem-solving
Studies indicate that thinking speed and capabilities decrease when we age³, meaning it’s understandable that an older individual may take a bit longer to solve a math word-problem than a young adult. But, a notable struggle to calculate a tip, keep track of bills, or follow directions could mean a significant decline in cognition.
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks
Cooking a favorite recipe, driving to an old friend’s home, or getting groceries are examples of familiar, everyday tasks that don’t typically require instruction. With Alzheimer’s, such to-do’s become increasingly difficult.
If a loved one seems to frequently need guidance completing tasks they could do without help before, it may be a sign of dementia.
4. Confusion with time or place
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a person with Alzheimer’s is likely to have trouble understanding something if it is not happening immediately. This means having trouble not only with keeping track of the day, month, or year, but with understanding the passage of time as well.
In a case of normal aging, we may lose track of the day of the week, but still be capable of using cues to recall and distinguish between different days.
5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
Vision problems may be a sign of dementia, though that is not always the case. For some, vision problems due to aging may be caused by cataracts, a common problem that blurs vision and can occur with aging⁴.
As a symptom of dementia, issues with vision can lead to difficulty with balance and trouble judging distance². If you or a loved one seem to have troubles with vision, it may be best to visit your healthcare provider to help find the potential causes of the symptoms.
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
At times we may have trouble finding the right words to use in conversation, which can happen to us more frequently as we age. A notable, constant difficulty with words, however, can be a sign of AD.
With dementia, individuals struggle to participate in conversations. Aside from struggling to remember words and having to repeat themselves, they also have a hard time following along with what others say. As we mentioned in the first symptom listed, a person with dementia is likely to repeat questions they have already asked in the same conversation.
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
Once again, as we stated, losing an item on occasion is normal, so long as we still have the ability to retrace our steps and remember what we did.
For someone with dementia, this ability starts to fade. Not only may they lose items often, they may do so because they start to put items away in places they don’t belong (without realizing it).
In more severe cases, a person with dementia may accuse others of stealing their items, when really they’ve simply misplaced them.
8. Decreased or poor judgement
An older adult may make a questionable, spontaneous decision once in a while—but if significant changes in behavior occur, it may mean something more serious. Dementia causes a decrease in judgement, which can present itself as a symptom when an individual pays less attention to the things they used to care about, such as self-grooming or handling money.
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
The cognitive changes that occur with AD can make socialization more difficult, sometimes resulting in withdrawal from social activities. We can all experience an ebb of flow with our social activities depending on our life circumstances, but any pronounced withdrawal that is uncharacteristic of an individual is worth checking with their doctor. Whether it’s a sign of dementia or something else—like depression or anxiety—a doctor can help point you in the right direction.
10. Notable changes in mood or personality
People with AD may become depressed, fearful, or anxious². It’s normal for an older individual to become irritated when their routine isn’t followed, but a more serious issue when they become easily upset often. Additionally, a person with AD may be easily confused when something out of the ordinary occurs.
What to do if you’ve noticed signs of AD
Letting a loved one know that you are worried about their memory and cognition can be difficult, especially if they are in denial. Before talking about dementia, acknowledge that the conversation with a loved one may not go as planned⁵.
Although it’s important not to force the conversation, it’s best to talk before further symptoms occur and cognition declines even more. Alzheimer’s.net lists some helpful conversation starters to address your concerns about another’s memory issues.
If you are still having trouble discussing your concerns with a loved one, perhaps contact a medical professional for help. Once a doctor is involved, offer your support by accompanying your loved one to visits. This can also help the doctor answer more questions about the individual’s behavior.
If you or a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, what happens next?
The National Institute on Aging offers helpful steps to take after a diagnosis. It’s important to find support, think proactively, and put a diagnosed individual’s safety first. Additionally, consider participating in a clinical trial to help make a difference for future generations. (We’ll discuss some details in the next section!)
Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s is irreversible and a cure is yet to be found. Aside from a few medications that may help slow the progression of the disease, lifestyle is the most powerful tool against AD.
We encourage you to get active and eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats—drink plenty of water, make your sleep a priority, engage your brain, and set time aside to relieve stress. These healthy lifestyle techniques will help preserve your brain health and keep your mind sharp from day to day. The good news is that our team is here to help you!
If in fact you DO notice abnormal changes in your memory and thinking (or that of a loved one), don’t be afraid to check in with your doctor.
How you can help (AD studies)
We have a lot of faith in the effectiveness of lifestyle on the prevention of Alzheimer’s, but we have yet to find a cure. The truth is: We need your help!
Clinical trials are the only means to find the answers to our questions and stop Alzheimer’s for good, but clinical trials don’t work without volunteers. Every person who participates in a clinical trial gets us one step closer to beating AD. Believe it or not, researchers are desperately short of study volunteers. If you can’t volunteer yourself, please consider spreading the word. If you’re ready to help us fight AD, visit our KU Alzheimer’s Disease Center website for information on currently enrolling studies and how to participate. You can help us make an impact!
- What are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease? National institute on aging. 2017. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-are-signs-alzheimers-disease
- 10 Early signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s Association. 2019. Retrieved from https://www.alz.org/alzheimers-dementia/10_signs
- Gard, T. Holzel, B.K., & Lazar, S.W. The potential effects of meditation o age-related cognitive decline: A systematic review. 2014. Annals of the New York academy of sciences, 1307(1) pp. 89-103. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12348.
- Cataracts. Mayo Clinic. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cataracts/symptoms-causes/syc-20353790
- Sauer, A. How to talk with a parent about dementia symptoms. Alzheimers.net. 2018. Retrieved from https://www.alzheimers.net/how-to-talk-with-a-parent-about-dementia-symptoms/