Alzheimer's causes memory problems and a variety of related symptoms. It is a degenerative disease, which means the symptoms will get worse over time.
Though there is no cure, there are some treatments available to ease symptoms and slow the disease's progression.
Signs and symptoms
There are several distinct signs and symptoms of memory loss that may indicate Alzheimer's. If a person experiences one or more of the following signs or symptoms, they should speak to their doctor.
1. Memory loss that impedes daily activities
Reliance on memory aids may be a sign of early-onset Alzheimer's.
The most common symptom of Alzheimer's is memory loss. A person experiencing memory loss may:
- forget recently learned information
- ask for same information repeatedly
- have a higher reliance on memory aids, such as calendars and notes
- forget important events or dates
As a person ages, it is not uncommon to forget things from time to time. Typical, non-Alzheimer's memory loss may include forgetting an acquaintance's name but remembering it later on.
A person with early-onset Alzheimer's will have more noticeable memory loss and may repeatedly forget the same information.
2. Trouble completing everyday tasks
Another common early sign of Alzheimer's is when a person has difficulty completing an otherwise familiar task.
A person with early-onset Alzheimer's may:
- forget how to get to a grocery store, restaurant, or place of employment
- have problems balancing a home or work budget
- forget the rules of a familiar game
Sometimes, natural aging may cause a person to need help with new or unfamiliar things. For example, helping an older loved one figure out the settings on their new phone is not uncommon and does not necessarily indicate a problem.
By contrast, if a person has used the same phone for years and suddenly cannot remember how to make a phone call, they may be experiencing Alzheimer's-related memory loss.
3. Problem-solving or planning difficulties
Some people with early-onset Alzheimer's find they have trouble following directions, solving problems, and focusing.
It may be hard for a person to follow a recipe or directions written on a product. They may also have trouble keeping track of monthly bills or expenses.
4. Problems with vision and spatial awareness
Alzheimer's can sometimes cause vision problems, which may make it difficult for a person to judge distances between objects.
It may also cause a person to have difficulty distinguishing contrast and colors. These vision problems combined can make it difficult or impossible to drive.
Normal aging also affects eyesight, so it is essential to have regular checkups with an eye doctor.
5. Confusion about location and time
Another common sign of early-onset Alzheimer's is getting confused about places or time. A person may have trouble keeping track of seasons, months, or time of day.
A person may occasionally be unable to recognize where they are or have no memory of how they got there.
6. Frequently misplacing items and not being able to retrace steps
Alzheimer's may cause a person to forget where they placed an item.
Most people will lose items at some time but are usually able to locate them again by searching in logical locations and retracing their steps.
A person with Alzheimer's may forget where they placed an item, especially if they put it in an unusual place.
Alzheimer's also makes it difficult for a person to retrace their steps to find the missing item. This can be distressing and may cause the person to believe someone is stealing from them.
7. Problems writing or speaking
A person may have trouble keeping up in a conversation or may repeat themselves. A person may also have trouble writing down their thoughts.
The person may stop in the middle of a conversation, unable to figure out what to say next. They may struggle to find the right word or label things incorrectly.
It is not uncommon for a person to occasionally struggle to find the right word. Typically, they eventually remember it and do not experience the problem frequently.
8. Showing signs of poor judgment
Everyone makes bad decisions at times. People with early-onset Alzheimer's, however, may display a marked change in their ability to make good decisions.
Signs of poor judgment include:
- spending too much on unnecessary items
- showing inattention to personal grooming
- not showering or cleaning themselves regularly
9. Mood or personality changes
A person with Alzheimer's may start to become confused, anxious, suspicious, or depressed. They may show these signs in a variety of settings, including at work, at home, and in unfamiliar places.
They may become frustrated with their symptoms or feel unable to understand the changes taking place. This may present as aggression or irritability towards others.
10. Stepping away from social or work activities
As Alzheimer's develops, a person may stop participating in the social or work activities they used to enjoy.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, age is the primary risk factor for developing Alzheimer's.
From the age of 65, the risk of developing Alzheimer's doubles every 5 years. By age 85, a person has a 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's.
Another risk factor is family history or genetics. A person is more likely to develop Alzheimer's if they have an immediate family member with the disease. If more than one person in the family has had Alzheimer's, the genetic risk increases.
Researchers are still unsure why Alzheimer's develops at an early age in some people. However, they have identified rare genes in some people who experience Alzheimer's in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.
A doctor can diagnose Alzheimer's based on several factors.
If a person experiences one or more of the symptoms listed above, they should speak to their doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis might help slow the progression of the disease.
There is no standard test to diagnose Alzheimer's, so a doctor will make a diagnosis based on several factors.
A doctor will ask a person about the symptoms and concerns. The doctor will also review a person's family history, specifically looking for a history of Alzheimer's and dementia. It may help to bring a loved one to the doctor's office for support.
After an initial review of the person's symptoms and family history, a doctor may order medical tests, including a neurological exam and brain imaging.
Treatment focuses on managing symptoms, as there is still no cure for Alzheimer's disease.
There are some medications available that may help with memory loss. These are most effective if started early on in the disease's progression.
Doctors can also provide recommendations and medications to help a person who is experiencing related health issues, such as insomnia, which may be contributing to memory problems.
Researchers are still looking for better treatment options.
Supporting a loved one
A person can support a loved one diagnosed with Alzheimer's in many different ways. Some recommendations include:
- Learning about Alzheimer's disease to understand the symptoms better.
- Participating in activities with the person as often as possible.
- Discussing the changing relationship with a counselor or other trusted person.
- Talking to the person about concrete ways to help, such as by preparing meals or driving them to appointments.
- Connecting with other people through support networks.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, but treatment can help in some ways.
Early detection may help slow the progression of the disease but will not prevent it.
A person is most at risk of developing Alzheimer's as they age, especially if they have a family history of the disease.
If a person suspects they or a loved one is developing Alzheimer's, they should speak to a doctor.