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How to Spot Early Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

Memory, judgment, reasoning and language skills are all important cognitive functions that falter when Alzheimer’s disease takes hold. Alzheimer’s is a form of degenerative dementia that eventually affects a person’s ability to function on their own. But how can we tell if a slip-up is just a natural mistake or an early sign of something bigger and more worrisome?

Once these functions decline so much that they start negatively affecting daily life, it’s time to pay attention. Being aware of these first signs can help you identify if the memory changes that you or a loved one are experiencing are simply a normal part of aging, or a sign of something more serious.

Age and Alzheimer’s

Age is an important factor in the likelihood of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. While the causes of the disease are still unknown, researchers say the disease is probably connected to age-related changes in the brain, family history, environmental and lifestyle factors such as tobacco and alcohol use, or traumatic brain injury.

What’s clear is that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases with age — 1 in 9 people older than 65 and 32 percent of people ages 85 and over have Alzheimer’s. The disease can affect people as early as their 40s, though those cases account for less than 10 percent of the total.

Early Alzheimer’s or Just Forgetful?

One of the earliest and most well-known symptoms of Alzheimer’s is episodic short-term memory loss — forgetting appointments or recent conversations, for example. Other symptoms of Alzheimer’s may include:

  • Repeating questions

  • Misplacing things

  • Trouble performing or taking longer to perform familiar tasks

  • Difficulty learning and remembering new information

  • Trouble managing finances

  • Withdrawing from work or social activities

  • Difficulty performing multistep tasks

  • Confusion with time or place

  • Insomnia

  • Changes in mood and personality, such as agitation, anxiety or depression

  • Poor judgment

These symptoms can simply be part of aging, but once they start negatively affecting quality of life, it’s time to see your doctor. As Alzheimer’s progresses, so do the symptoms. Later-stage Alzheimer’s patients may have these symptoms: 

  • Trouble recognizing family and friends

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Getting lost or wandering

  • Difficulty finding the right words or speaking

  • Struggling with reading, writing and simple math. 

How Do Doctors Diagnose Alzheimer’s?

There’s no single test to diagnose Alzheimer’s. In addition to a physical examination, the doctor will ask about your medical history and may order lab work such as blood and urine tests to rule out other causes of symptoms you are experiencing, like medication side effects.

They may also do cognitive testing, which involves asking a series of questions to test and assess memory, focus, problem-solving, counting and language skills. 

In some circumstances, brain imaging tools – a CT scan, PET scan or MRI -- may be used to determine if there are any physical changes in the structure of the brain tissue or high levels of beta-amyloid, a protein that builds up as plaque as brain tissue degenerates. This buildup is a bellwether for Alzheimer’s.


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