What are the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?
Dementia is an umbrella term (literally meaning without mind) for the progressive loss of thinking, judgment, and ability to focus and learn. More than half of dementia cases are caused by Alzheimer’s, a disease named after the physician who discovered it back in 1906. No one is exactly sure what causes Alzheimer’s, but genetic factors are definitely in the mix. The second-leading cause of dementia is the death of brain cells due to mini-strokes that block blood supply. These small, successive strokes oftentimes go unnoticed as they chip away at the brain. People with high blood pressure and diabetes are at considerable risk for this type of dementia.
We all become distracted, forget names and misplace our keys. So, how do you know the difference between forgetfulness and dementia? The Alzheimer’s Association has developed a list of warning signs people should look out for that might be an indicator of Alzheimer’s. If you suspect your aging parents' dementia might actually be Alzheimer's, or if they experience any of the following symptoms, it’s time to get them to a doctor.
- Memory loss affecting job skills. Frequently forgetting assignments, colleagues’ names, appearing confused for no reason.
- Difficulty performing familiar tasks. Becomes distracted easily, forgets what they were doing or why. Might prepare a meal, forget to serve it or that they even made it.
- Problems with language. Forgets simple words or substitutes inappropriate words, and/or doesn’t make sense.
- Disorientation to time and place. May become lost on their own street, doesn’t know where they are, how they got there or how to get back home.
- Poor or decreased judgment. Usually exhibited through inappropriate clothing or poor grooming. Forgets to wear a coat when it’s cold, or wears a bathrobe to the store.
- Problems with abstract thinking. Exhibits trouble with numbers, and can no longer make simple calculations.
- Misplaces things. Not only loses things, but places things in inappropriate places, such as placing a purse in the freezer or a wristwatch in a sugar bowl, then has no idea how they got there.
- Mood and behavior changes. Exhibits rapid mood swings for no apparent reason.
- Dramatic changes in personality. Someone who was easy going now appears extremely uptight. Becoming suspicious and fearful is common, too.
- Loss of initiative. Becomes extremely disinterested and uninvolved in things he or she used to enjoy.
In diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, the primary physician will first rule out any reversible causes, such as a drug reaction. Once that has been done, a geriatrician or a neurologist (an MD who specializes in the nervous system) will do a full work-up, which takes about two to three hours. The physician should listen to you and other family members describe changes in your aging parent based upon the Top Ten Warning Signs list above. Prepare for the appointment by noting the behaviors on the list that you’ve seen, keeping in mind you do not want to count typical, life-long habits of absentmindedness.
Since there is no definite, proof-positive test to diagnose Alzheimer’s, doctors rely on a battery of tests to rule everything else out. Between five and ten percent of cases of apparent dementia are caused by a condition that can be reversed. This might be a good point to use to convince your mom or dad to be evaluated. It’s not uncommon for people to try to hide their symptoms for fear of Alzheimer’s. Letting them know that there are a number of possible causes for their symptoms might alleviate their fears and encourage them to find out what’s really wrong. Either way it turns out, your parent and you will be better off knowing the truth.