By Maria Ledger – CEO, My Choice Family Care
June is Brain Awareness and Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, making this a good time to learn the warning signs and symptoms of this disease that impacts memory, thinking, and behavior.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia and, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.7 million people are living with it today. In Wisconsin alone, approximately 120,000 people are trying to cope with symptoms, with family caregivers providing 215 million hours of care annually for people still living at home.
Most people with Alzheimer’s are 65 years old or older, but it also can affect younger people, too. Research suggests that exercise, a healthy diet, and staying mentally active are possible steps in the prevention of Alzheimer’s, but there is still much to be learned. There is also no cure, but treatments are available that can help slow the disease and help people with Alzheimer’s stay independent for a longer period.
Here are 10 early warning signs or symptoms of Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association:
- Memory loss that impacts day-to-day living—repeatedly asking for the same information, forgetting important events, and needing help remembering familiar items
- Difficulty in planning or problem-solving—trouble concentrating, dealing with numbers, or following simple instructions, like those in a favorite recipe
- Trouble handling routine tasks—forgetting how to do daily tasks, such as remembering how to drive to a frequently visited spot
- Confusion about dates or locations—become disoriented about days or forgetting where you are
- Vision problems—vision changes, such as no longer being able to read or judge distances
- Language problems—repeating yourself, forgetting what you are talking about, or using incorrect words to describe something
- Losing items—losing things or putting them in unusual places, such as placing clothes in the freezer, often leading to accusing loved ones or others of stealing
- Loss of judgment—exercising poor judgment or hampered decision-making abilities
- Social impact—becoming standoffish or introverted at work or at home, and avoiding social situations for fear of forgetfulness being noticed
- Mood and personality changes—depression, confusion, anxiety, or fear
There are also many highly treatable conditions that mimic Alzheimer’s—that’s why it’s essential to see a doctor as soon as signs or symptoms of the disease arise.
According to AARP, there are other reasons someone may be experiencing memory loss. Their web site provides the following information:
It Could Be Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH)
With NPH, the symptom that’s usually noticed first is a distinctive change is gait or walking pattern. Other indicators include problems with thinking and memory, a lack of concentration, and urinary incontinence or a frequent need to urinate.
Diagnosis/treatment: See a neurologist for a complete physical and medical history. A CT scan, MRI, or spinal tap can verify the diagnosis and a shunt can help remove fluid from the brain to reduce or eliminate symptoms.
It Could Be Your Medication
Because the body metabolizes and eliminates medication less efficiently as we age, drugs can build up and cause memory glitches and other side effects that look very similar to Alzheimer’s disease. The most likely culprits are narcotic painkillers (opiates); benzodiazepines used for sleep and anxiety; steroids; and muscle relaxers used after injury.
Diagnosis/treatment: Tell your doctor about every drug you take, including supplements. If troublesome symptoms develop after starting a medication, you may be having a bad reaction. Don’t just stop taking your meds, but ask your doctor about options. The American Geriatrics Society publishes the Beers Criteria, a list of drugs that should be used with caution, or not at all, by older people.
It Could Be Depression
Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist in Miami and author of the 2015 book The Dementia Caregiver says: “Severe depression can sometimes cause a cognitive impairment known as pseudodementia. When the depression is treated, symptoms improves, but those individuals still have a higher risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in the next few years.”
Diagnosis/treatment: Get evaluated for depression by a psychiatrist, neurologist, or geriatrician affiliated with a memory disorder clinic or major medical center. Depression isn’t something you can “just snap out of,” but it can be treated successfully with medication, regular exercise, cognitive therapy, and stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, or prayer.
It Could Be a Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)
UTIs are caused by bacteria building up in the bladder, leading to infections. They’re often missed in older people because seniors rarely have the typical symptoms of a high fever or pain. Instead, there may be sudden memory problems, confusion, delirium, dizziness, agitation, or even hallucinations.
Diagnosis/treatment: See your doctor—most urinary tract infections are easily treated with antibiotics, lots of fluids, a healthy diet, and rest.
It Could Be Vascular Dementia
There are two different types of vascular dementia: the obvious type where someone has a significant stroke, resulting in loss of function in part of the body or difficulty speaking. More commonly, however, is subcortical vascular dementia, which is caused by ministrokes. “Sometimes a person may not even know they’ve had one, but begin to show signs of cognitive impairment,” Agronin says.
Diagnosis/treatment: Treatment involves reducing the risk of further stroke by being physically active, controlling blood pressure, and not smoking, and also getting some form of cognitive rehabilitation, such as active brain exercises. Certain drugs approved to treat Alzheimer’s may also offer a modest benefit for people diagnosed with vascular dementia.
It Could Be a Brain Tumor
Someone showing signs of dementia may have a benign tumor called a meningioma, which can press on certain parts of the brain and cause cognitive dysfunction.
Diagnosis/treatment: These tumors can be surgically removed but, Agronin emphasizes, early assessment is key. “At early stages, these tumors are more easily resected and their cognitive changes can be completely reversible. The longer you wait, the more difficult the surgery will be, with greater risk of permanent damage.”
It Could Be a Aubdural Hematoma From a Head Injury
A subdural hematoma occurs when abnormal bleeding from an injury causes bleeding and pressure in the layers of tissue that surround the brain, leading to dementia-like symptoms.
Diagnosis/treatment: If the hematoma is big enough, it can be surgically drained. If it’s small enough or the patient is not a surgical candidate, it can go away on its own, but it will take some time.
It Could Be Alcohol-Related
Alcohol abuse, even binge drinking for a short time when you were young, destroys brain cells in areas critical for memory, thinking, decision-making, and balance, says Majid Fotuhi, medical director of NeuroGrow Brain Fitness and the chief medical officer of Neurocore Brain Performance Centers.
Besides destroying brain cells, heavy drinking can also lead to injury and increases the risk of other health problems that can impair cognitive function, such as liver damage. Certain medications, when combined with alcohol, can also cause memory issues and other side effects.
Diagnosis/treatment: Depending on the damage, some effects of long-term alcohol abuse can be reversed. If you suspect you have alcohol-related memory problems, seek professional help.
Your My Choice Family Care team is always available to provide support to our members and help them stay as independent as possible. If you or a loved one have questions or concerns about Alzheimer’s, reach out to your care team so they can connect you to the right resources.