Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease: When Should You Visit a Doctor?

Worried about changes in you or a loved one’s thinking ability and behavior?

One in 10 Americans over the age of 65 is living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), and that number is expected to rise exponentially over the next few decades. By 2050, 14 million Americans could be living with the disease.

Given these alarming statistics, it’s likely that at some point, someone you know will be impacted, which is why it’s important to be observant of the early warning signs. While the brain changes that cause AD start years and even decades before symptoms emerge, it can be difficult to differentiate between normal aging and signs of the early stages of the disease.

However, the earlier AD is detected, the better, as an early diagnosis can help patients and their families plan for the future, initiate treatment (both lifestyle modifications and medications), and consider participation in a clinical trial. Clinical trials in AD — where new and promising treatments are being tested — are increasingly focused on testing new medications at the earliest stages of the disease, when symptoms first emerge.

Be on the lookout for these five symptoms

  1. Memory Loss
    AD is a brain disease that causes a slow decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. Most notably during the early stages, you may find that your loved one has started to forget recently learned information, repeat him or herself, and become unable to complete tasks that used to be easy (paying bills, scheduling and attending appointments or taking medications). While mild memory loss is a normal part of aging, it shouldn’t be persistent or get worse over time.
  2. Behavioral Changes
    Aside from memory, AD and other dementias can cause behavioral changes. In some people, poor judgment may be the initial symptom. Apathy (lack of interest in activities) and social withdrawal may also be signs of brain disease.
  3. Language
    Word-finding difficulty is a common symptom of normal aging and misplacing a word can happen because we are distracted with other things on our mind, had a bad night’s sleep or are “having a bad day.” Language changes seen in dementia are more than just word finding and usually involve difficulty communicating a thought.
  4. Visuospatial Difficulties
    The visual system has two components: 1. the capture of light (completed by the lens, retina and optic nerve) and 2. the interpretation of this light into meaningful information (completed by the back part of the brain, or occipital cortex). In some dementias, the first noticeable symptom may be due to faulty ways the brain is interpreting visual information. Symptoms of these dementias may include difficulty judging distances (driving a car) or manipulating items (such as hanging a picture or using utensils or other household objects).
  5. Personality Changes
    As people age, they typically become set in their routines and may be upset by deviation from these patterns. However, people with dementia may experience more drastic personality changes, becoming anxious, fearful, suspicious, confused or depressed.

If you’re still on the fence about whether to bring in your loved one for a checkup, ask yourself these questions:

  • Are you more worried about leaving the person at home alone for a week than you used to be? 
  • Do you think he or she would be able to get by with food, reliably take prescribed medications and handle any problems that could arise without assistance?

The course of AD varies from person to person and for some, it can be difficult to identify the early stages. But if you answered yes to either of these questions, are noticing any of the five symptoms or, most importantly, are observing a noticeable change from the person’s prior level of functioning, it’s likely time to consult a specialist. 

If you or a loved one need a consult please contact one of our locations in Ohio, Florida, Nevada, and Canada: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/help

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