Typically, in the months or years leading up to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, a patient or his or her loved ones notices certain changes that signal mental decline. The Alzheimer’s Association has published a list of ten warning signs that accompany the disease. Here they are, in a nutshell:
1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life. This is one of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s, and it often takes the form of difficulty retaining newly-learned information, forgetting important dates and events, or repeatedly asking for the same information. Contrast this with occasionally forgetting names or appointments, but later remembering them; this type of sporadic, temporary memory lapse is a normal age-related change.
2. Challenges in planning or solving problems. Sometimes, a person with Alzheimer’s develops trouble working with numbers or developing and following a plan. This can be experienced as trouble with previously problem-free tasks, like keeping track of monthly bills or following a familiar recipe.
3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work, or at leisure. One of the hallmarks of the disease is a decline in the ability to do things that used to be second nature, like recalling the directions to a familiar place or remembering how to perform routine work-related tasks.
4. Confusion with time or place. Those with Alzheimer’s can have real trouble with the passage of time. They can forget what day it is, or even what season or year it is. This is different from typical age-related memory lapses where a person temporarily forgets what day it is or gets dates mixed up, but soon remembers the information accurately.
5. Trouble understanding visual images or spatial relationships. Some people experience visual problems, like trouble reading or trouble determining color or contrast, in connection with Alzheimer’s disease.
6. New problems with words in speaking or writing. One sign of Alzheimer’s is increasing difficulty processing words. This might surface as trouble joining or continuing a conversation or as difficulty calling objects by the right name.
7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. Frequently losing important items or putting things in odd places can be a warning sign of the disease. Another sign of Alzheimer’s is the inability of a person to retrace their steps in order to find a misplaced object.
8. Decreased or poor judgment. People with Alzheimer’s can experience a decline in the ability to make good decisions. This can surface as an inability to manage money responsibly, as a decline in personal cleanliness and hygiene, or in other ways.
9. Withdrawal from work or social activities. The cognitive changes that accompany Alzheimer’s can cause a patient to stop participating in hobbies, social activities, or work functions that they formerly enjoyed.
10. Changes in mood or personality. Alzheimer’s can cause fluctuations in mood and personality traits. For instance, people with the disease may become anxious, depressed, confused or suspicious.
If you notice these types of changes in a loved one (or in yourself), it’s important to get the help of a doctor. He or she can provide an accurate diagnosis and, if it is Alzheimer’s disease, can prescribe treatments to reduce the severity of symptoms and to slow the progress of the disease.