Memory loss is a common sign of Alzheimer’s disease, but did you know other symptoms can also be a red flag for the condition?
We often associate Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia with memory loss, and for good reason. Most people who are diagnosed with dementia experience some level of memory loss as the condition advances.
In addition to forgetting names, concepts, and memories, those who have advanced dementia also experience other health issues related to the brain. Keep reading to learn about some of the lesser-known symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
A Look at Alzheimer’s Disease
Before we dive into the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, let’s first talk about what the disease is. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for up to 80 percent of all dementia diagnoses.
More than 6 million Americans are currently living with this progressive disease. While it’s most common among adults ages 65 and older, it can be diagnosed in younger people too—a condition known as “early-onset” Alzheimer’s.
To understand how Alzheimer’s affects the brain, first consider how the brain works when it’s functioning optimally. Inside your brain, there are 100 billion nerve cells (also called neurons) that are responsible for communicating with other parts of your body and helping it function. When someone develops Alzheimer’s disease, those cells are damaged and eventually die.
Researchers aren’t entirely certain how and why that occurs, but plaques and tangles seem to play a key role. A protein fragment called “beta-amyloid” builds up into deposits known as plaques, while a different protein called “tau” twists together into tangles. Both plaques and tangles may cause damage to the brain’s nerve cells.
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease
Because Alzheimer’s affects the neurons in the brain, gradually causing them to die off, symptoms will progress gradually. Usually, symptoms emerge slowly over time and progressively worsen.
A little bit of memory loss—such as forgetting why you went into the bedroom or where you set your keys down—is quite normal. And as you get older, forgetfulness may occur more often.
But memory loss that’s substantial enough to disrupt daily life isn’t normal. It’s often associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease more specifically.
Memory loss isn’t the only symptom, though. Other signs that dementia may be lurking include:
- Mood or personality changes. While it’s normal for our moods to fluctuate as we go about daily life, wild swings in mood or personality usually signal an underlying problem. In an older adult, they can be signs of dementia. Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may appear newly angry, confused, suspicious, depressed, anxious, easily irritated, or fearful. These changes will persist, even if the person resumes normal activities or remains in a familiar environment, like the home.
- Diminished judgment. Even someone who typically has strong decision-making skills may suddenly show poor judgment as Alzheimer’s disease develops. This may show itself in how a person handles money or in a new inability to handle tasks of daily living like basic hygiene practices.
- Problems with spoken or written words. As Alzheimer’s disease negatively impacts nerve cells in the brain, a person may develop a new difficulty in speaking or writing even familiar words. This can cause someone with the disease to struggle to participate in a conversation, stop in the middle of speaking and be unable to continue or misname a familiar object or person.
- Confusion with time or place. While it’s normal for anyone to occasionally lose track of what day it is, those who have Alzheimer’s often experience a broader detachment to time and place. This can cause them to lose track of dates, seasons, and even the concept of time passing, as well as where they are, even in a familiar environment.
- Difficulty with problem-solving. Dementia can cause cognitive changes that make it difficult or impossible to create or follow a plan, or to work with numbers and other types of problems. Even if a person is still able to problem-solve, the process may take much longer than before because of a lapse in concentration.
- Inability to complete familiar tasks. You’ve probably heard or even made a joke about an older adult and his or her difficulties using technology. Some level of unfamiliarity and discomfort with new advances in technology is entirely normal, but a sudden inability to perform tasks that previously were possible is not normal. Alzheimer’s disease can cause an inability to complete basic tasks, such as driving home, creating a grocery list, or even operating the microwave.
- Trouble with visual images and spatial relationships. They’re often seen as simply a normal part of aging, but visual changes can be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s common for those with the disease to experience problems with ocular motility and an inability to focus on a fixed object. Those with dementia may also have difficulty judging distance or discerning colors, which can impair driving ability.
If you or a loved one are experiencing any of the symptoms outlined above, it’s a good idea to talk with a medical provider. While some levels of cognitive changes can be normal, and our cognitive function does fluctuate somewhat due to a variety of factors, lingering or drastic changes are a cause for medical attention.
While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are medications and other therapies that can help slow the progress of the disease, limiting its effects for a period of time. The earlier someone starts on those therapies, the better, so don’t wait to check out unusual symptoms.
West Tennessee Medical Group Neuroscience & Spine Center offers advanced diagnostic and treatment options for a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. Call (731) 541-9490 to learn more.