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The early warning signs of Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks neurons and essentially robs people of their memory and language skills. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer's, there are therapies that can slow its neurological impact. Recognizing the early warning signs of Alzheimer's can encourage people to begin treatments that can stave off some of the more debilitating symptoms of this disease.

Though it's most common among the elderly, Alzheimer's is not a normal part of aging. The Mayo Clinic says that the reasons behind the inception and progression of Alzheimer's disease are largely unknown. It is believed damage starts a decade or more before problems become evident. Abnormal deposits of proteins begin to form the amyloid plaques and tau tangles throughout the brain, and these formations are the hallmarks of the disease. Once-healthy neurons gradually begin to lose their efficiency and ability to function and communicate with one another. As more neurons die, entire areas of the brain shrink. The hippocampus, which is the area of the brain essential in forming memories, may soon become compromised.

Millions of people in North America are estimated to have Alzheimer's disease and many others will be diagnosed. The following are the most common early signs and symptoms of the disease.

* Memory loss: According to the Alzheimer's Organization, early memory loss can include forgetting important dates or repeatedly asking for the same information. Forgetting recently learned information and having to rely increasingly on memory aids is another potential indicator of Alzheimer's.

* Declining cognition: Impaired reasoning or judgment, trouble finding the right words and visual and spatial issues also may be early indicators of Alzheimer's.

* Difficulty completing familiar tasks: Those with Alzheimer's sometimes have trouble driving to a familiar location or remembering the rules to a favorite game. People who were once good with numbers may now have difficulty balancing their checkbooks, while those who love to cook may have trouble following recipes.

* Time confusion: Another indicator of Alzheimer's disease is losing track of time. One may have trouble understanding something that isn't happening in the present. Alzheimer's sufferers often forget where they are and how they got there.

* Misplacing items: Everyone loses something at a point in time, but those with Alzheimer's may put items in unusual places. They may sometimes accuse others of stealing when they cannot retrace their steps and find items.

* Decreased judgment: Decision-making abilities may be compromised. A person with Alzheimer's may take unnecessary risks or give away sums of money.

* Mood changes: People with Alzheimer's may suffer from confusion, suspicious feelings, depression and anxiety. A person may upset easily or become anxious outside of his or her comfort zones.

Age and family history of Alzheimer's disease are the biggest risk factors. The liklihood of developing Alzheimer's doubles about every five years after age 65, says the Alzheimer's Organization. In addition, those with a parent, child or sibling who have developed Alzheimer's are more likely to develop the disease than people with no such family history.

A physical and neurological exam, which may include blood tests and brain imaging, will be used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. Individuals can learn more by making appointments with their doctors.