With all of this news, you may be worrying about your own brain health, or that of your loved ones. After all, given over six million Americans have Alzheimer’s, it’s more common than any of us would like to imagine.
I mean, struggling to remember words and details can be scary. When is it normal for your age versus a sign of Alzheimer’s? Knowing where the line is between the two is tricky, and it’s a question no one wants to ask themselves.
Only an expert like a neurologist or geriatrician can make a diagnosis, but there are red flags that might signal that it's time to book an appointment for some testing. To help you know what you’re working with, a neurologist shares how some early signs of the disease differ from the normal effects of aging.
1. Forgetting recently learned information
Forgetting about an appointment or what a person’s name is—and being able to recall it later—is a typical change you’ll see in older folks, according to Anjali N. Patel, DO, a memory and cognitive neurologist of the Atlantic Neuroscience Institute and Overlook Medical Center. An early sign of Alzheimer’s, on the other hand, is “forgetting recently learned information [or] repeating the same question,” she explains. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, that’s the most common sign in the early stages.
Dr. Patel gives an example. “If someone has a doctor’s appointment coming up, they may ask multiple times regarding the date and time of the appointment,” she says. “The person may repeat the question right away, after a few minutes, or the following day. This can vary.”
2. Feeling confused, suspicious, anxious/fearful, or depressed
Some emotional ups and downs are normal for all of us. Particularly once our days start to follow a predictable pattern, we “can become irritated when the routine is changed or disrupted,” Dr. Patel says. That’s typical with age (and is pretty understandable across the board!).
However, if you notice someone lose control over how they express their emotions, overreact, or have rapid mood changes due to not understanding a situation, it’s more likely an early sign of Alzheimer’s, she continues. One example of a confusing event is traveling to a new location, which can lead to intense reactions in an Alzheimer’s patient.
3. Consistently making poor judgments
Many of us have made mistakes here and there by falling for spam or struggling with a budget. But a red flag is if it’s consistent. Dr. Patel says, “Individuals might miss a payment once, make a mistake once in a while,” and that’s typical. It could signal Alzheimer’s, though, if “patients cannot manage a budget [or have] poor judgment, [such as] giving away personal information to strangers.”
4. Hiding items and/or accusing others of stealing items they can’t find
Being unable to find something—whether it’s the remote or a nice pair of earrings—can be stressful and confusing. Even the most organized people probably know the struggle. According to Dr. Patel, it’s a-okay if the person is able to retrace their steps to find the item.
But when “patients place objects in unusual places, cannot find the object again, and may accuse others of taking items,” she says, it’s possibly an early sign of Alzheimer’s. She explains how this happens, saying patients often lose or misplace items, assume someone must be taking their things, then hide those items in unexpected places for “safekeeping.”
5. Struggling to keep up in conversation
Having trouble thinking of the right word (and it eventually coming to mind) is a typical age-related change people may experience, Dr. Patel says. However, when patients have trouble following a conversation, consistently call things by the wrong name, or regularly lose their train of thought, you might be seeing early signs of Alzheimer’s.
6. Noticing a significantly decreased understanding of visual images
As we age, our vision may change due to cataracts. Buying a new pair of glasses can be a normal item on the to-do list. However, Alzheimer’s may be a concern if safety issues are popping up, like “having difficulty judging distance, leading to car accidents, [or] episodes of getting lost,” she says.
7. Losing track of time and events
If your loved one isn’t sure about the exact date or day of the week, there’s no need to be concerned, according to Dr. Patel. She warns more about patients “having difficulty understanding when events took place [and] losing track of the month/year/season” since that could be a potential sign of Alzheimer’s.
This could look several different ways. “They may forget recent events, such as visiting family or going on a trip,” she adds. “The person may recall events from the past in greater detail, and may believe those prior events took place more recently.”
What to do next
If you think you or a loved one might be exhibiting possible early signs of Alzheimer’s, book an appointment with a neurologist. They will be able to use imaging, cognitive or blood tests, and other neurological exams and assessments to figure out if that’s what’s going on.
And if it is, know that all hope is not lost. An Alzheimer’s medication was approved by the FDA in 2021, and prevention research is underway, from AI technology to a study about the benefits of folate to predictive blood tests. You aren’t alone in this.
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