Knowing the Signs of Alzheimer's and Dementia
It is difficult to find a person whose life has not been touched by some form of dementia. One in nine Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease, and one in three will develop some form of dementia by the age of 85. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in America. This neurodegenerative disease adversely impacts patients, caregivers, family members and loved ones. NewLeaf Home Medical provides products to help people with Alzheimer’s disease and their caregivers to navigate this thorny terrain. With early identification and a proactive approach, families can create a safe environment and a supportive network to protect their loved ones as their memory declines.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a number of conditions that can lead to a decline in memory, thinking skills and general mental ability. While some forgetfulness is normal, particularly as a person ages, if the decline causes difficulties in a person’s daily life, it is time to consult a specialist. Dementia can have many causes, some of which are treatable. Many diseases and disorders can cause symptoms of dementia, including:
- Alzheimer’s Disease: The most common and well-known form of dementia, this progressive neurodegenerative disease affects millions each year.
- Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease: This type of Alzheimer’s occurs in patients under 65 years old. Symptoms can manifest as early as a person’s 30s. However, early onset Alzheimer’s accounts for less than 5% of all Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
- Vascular Dementia: A type of dementia that can occur after a stroke due to damage to the vessels that carry blood to the brain. Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia.
- Lewy Body Dementia: Symptoms are similar to both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Lewy Body dementia is caused by abnormal deposits of alpha-synuclein in the brain.
- Parkinson’s Dementia: Dementia that occurs as Parkinson’s disease progresses. This type of dementia typically manifests at least a year after the onset of movement problems.
- Frontotemporal Dementia: This type of dementia is caused by degeneration of the frontotemporal region. It is nearly as common as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
- Huntington’s Disease: An inherited disease that causes movement, behavioral and cognitive disabilities. Most people develop symptoms in their 30s or 40s, but onset can be earlier or later.
- Thyroid Disorders: Low levels of thyroid hormone, called hypothyroidism, can impair memory and thinking. Symptoms can disappear when thyroid levels are returned to normal through medication.
- Vitamin Deficiencies: Abnormally low levels of thiamine, B12 and other vitamins and minerals can cause symptoms of dementia, including memory problems and impaired thinking.
What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for between sixty and eighty percent of all diagnosed dementia cases. It is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that is caused by a buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the brain. While all brains accumulate some plaques and tangles as they age, the brains of Alzheimer’s patients accumulate an abnormal amount of these deposits, which choke off once normal neurons and destroy the connective fibers between them. Eventually the brain begins to atrophy, and in time will show significant shrinkage.
Scientists are still unsure what causes Alzheimer’s. Genetic mutations are responsible for most early-onset Alzheimer’s, but Alzheimer’s that manifests after the age of 65 is likely caused by a combination of environmental, genetic and lifestyle factors. Some genes, including APOE e4, can increase a person’s risk of developing the disease. Head trauma, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol can also increase a person’s likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s. Avoiding alcohol and tobacco, maintaining a healthy weight, staying mentally and physically active, and nurturing strong social connections can protect against Alzheimer’s, though they may not always prevent it.
What Are the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease/Dementia?
Most people associate Alzheimer’s with memory loss, but forgetfulness is not the only symptom that manifests early. The Alzheimer’s Association lists ten warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease:
- Memory Loss – Forgetting a name, misplacing your car keys or having difficulty coming up with the right word for an item can be frustrating, but these mental slips are common and not necessarily cause for concern. However, if a person frequently forgets new information, has difficulty remembering and following through with instructions, or increasingly relies on friends, family or a memory aids such as reminder notes or an electronic device, their memory loss may be symptomatic of a memory disorder.
- Difficulty Solving Problems or Making Plans - People with dementia often have difficulty engaging in long-term thinking, creating a plan that involves multiple steps or considering the pros and cons of various solutions to a problem. This can create problems at home and at work. Pay attention to how your loved one responds to a challenge or approaches a new project to determine whether their mind is up to the task.
- Challenges Completing Familiar Tasks – If your grandmother has always balanced her checkbook with ease or followed recipes without difficulty but suddenly has difficulty executing these tasks, she may be suffering from some form of dementia. A cognitively impaired person may also have difficulty following the rules of a game they have played many times, engaging in a hobby they previously enjoyed, or completing routine housekeeping tasks.
- Confusion with Time and Place - Dementia patients often have difficulty remembering the time of day, the day of the week or even the season. They may also experience the passage of time differently. If a family member leaves for a few minutes, they may say that the person has been gone for hours. Conversely, they may remember seeing someone yesterday whom they actually haven’t seen in months. They may also become confused about where they are and how they got there. They may wander or become lost when walking or driving a familiar route. These are clear signs that something is amiss.
- Problem With Vision – Vision problems can indicate a number of problems in older people. Some will experience vision loss as a natural part of the aging process, while others should be screened for cataracts or macular degeneration. However, some vision problems, including difficulty determining color, judging distance or evaluating spatial relationships, can be early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Difficulties Speaking and Writing – Written and spoken words can present a challenge for those with Alzheimer’s disease. They may have difficulty following a conversation, particularly when there are multiple speakers. They may repeat themselves, struggle to remember words or events, or lose their train of thought. Their writing may be unclear, and they may have difficulty understanding the plotline of a novel or the important points in an email.
- Misplacing Things – Everyone loses their keys from time to time, but a person with dementia will have trouble retracing their steps to find the lost item. They may also place things in unusual places. They may leave their wallet in the freezer, or put clothing in desk drawers. Some will be certain that their belongings have been moved or even stolen by another person.
- Impaired Judgment – People with Alzheimer’s can be very vulnerable. They may be fooled by telemarketers, email scams or predatory friends and family. They may give away large sums of money or agree to contracts they don’t fully understand. Their grooming skills and hygiene may also decline.
- Withdrawal – Because they have difficulty following conversations or completing previously enjoyed tasks, people with Alzheimer’s may withdraw from others at work and at home. They may lose interest in sports they previously enjoyed watching, or stop attending their usual book club, dance group or game night.
- Changes in Personality – The same cognitive decline that causes symptoms of dementia can prevent a person who is suffering from identifying or understanding what is happening to them. Instead, they may become fearful, paranoid, angry or hostile to those around them. They may become easily upset, especially when they are confused by a situation. They may show signs of depression or anxiety.
Some men and women recognize symptoms of dementia in themselves, and will discuss concerns with their doctor on their own. However, many will not realize that their mental capacity has changed, or will blame the difficulties they are having on others. It can be difficult to convince a loved one to seek help, but it is important that they do so. Only a doctor can determine why the person’s mind is declining, and what can be done about it.
Diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease
Doctors use a number of tests to determine whether a patient is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. These tests may include:
- Questionnaires for friends and family. Loved ones may be asked about the patient’s overall health, changes in memory or thinking skills, changes in personality, mood or behavior, and ability to carry out routine activities.
- Cognitive tests. Tests of attention, counting, language, memory and problem solving may be administered to the patient, both to assess their current performance and to establish a baseline to compare against future test.
- Standard medical tests, including blood and urine. These tests may identify or rule out causes such as vitamin deficiency and hypothyroidism.
- Brain scans. Doctors may use computed tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to image the brain and its functioning.
Alzheimer’s disease cannot be definitively diagnosed until after death, when an autopsy can reveal the presence of plaques and tangles. In living patients, doctors must examine all the evidence to find the diagnosis that best suits the symptoms. Patients should not be diagnosed based on reports of symptoms alone. Because dementia can have other causes that can be treatable, it is important to rule out these other causes.
Why Is Early Intervention Important?
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but this does not mean that family members should not seek help if a loved one is displaying signs of memory loss. No matter their age, anyone experiencing the above symptoms should consult with their doctor as soon as possible. Early intervention has many benefits:
- Not all dementia is untreatable. Hypothyroidism, vitamin deficiency and even depression can cause symptoms of dementia. With the right treatment, patients experiencing these disorders can regain cognitive functioning as well as physical health.
- Treatment for Alzheimer’s is most effective in the early stages. While there is no cure, there are several drugs available that can mitigate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and delay the progression of the disease. The earlier the disease is identified and the sooner the patient begins treatment, the more effective these drugs can be, allowing the patient to maintain their independence for much longer.
- Patients can investigate clinical trial opportunities. Researchers are continually testing promising new medications that may delay or even reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The earlier the disease is diagnosed, the more likely a patient will be to qualify for placement in a clinical trial.
- Patients and caregivers can make long-term plans. When Alzheimer’s is identified early, patients and caregivers can work together to understand what they may face on the road ahead. Patients in the early stages of the disease are generally competent enough to make important decisions regarding their care, treatment, transportation and living options. They can also put their affairs in order and make necessary financial and legal arrangements.
- Caregivers can address potential safety issues. Alzheimer’s patients can forget how to use household appliances, wander and become easily lost, have trouble with balance, and experience changes in hearing, vision and depth perception. An early diagnosis gives caregivers more time to implement safety measures to protect their loved ones before these challenges arise.
- Caregivers can develop support networks. Caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s can be overwhelming, but by identifying the disease early caregivers can arm themselves with information and make plans for the future. They can reach out to other friends and family for support and assistance. They can also identify support groups online and in their own communities, where they can interact with others who are experiencing the same challenges.
If you have noticed signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia in yourself or in a loved one, don’t wait to get a diagnosis. The earlier you seek treatment, the more effective it can be. A clear diagnosis can also help you to prepare for future challenges. At NewLeaf Home Medical, we are committed to supporting those with memory loss by providing the best products for safety and home health.
Alzheimer's Association - www.alz.org
BrightFocus Foundation - www.brightfocus.org
Fall Prevention Center of Excellence - www.stopfalls.org
National Council for Aging Care - www.aging.com
© NewLeaf Health 2018