Detection of Early Warning Signs Crucial to Alzheimer’s Treatment

Family and friends can play a key role in the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. When Eric Tangelos, M.D., remembers how his kids were the first to notice a change in his neighbor Mary. They alerted him to her strange forgetfulness and this action most certainly made a difference in Mary’s quality of life.

“Because we learned of her condition early on, Mary could make adjustments in her life that enabled her to continue to live at home with her husband for the next ten years, “ said Tangalos.

Today, 12 years after Mary’s diagnosis, the benefits of identifying the disease early have never been greater. Drugs such as donepezil and tacrine can help improve thinking and reasoning skills in people with Alzheimer’s. Moreover, the earlier those with Alzheimer’s begin treatment, the more likely they will benefit. Thus, the importance of recognizing the disease’s warning signs. And family members and friends are often in the best position to determine when someone close begins to behave strangely.

“My kids didn’t know the warning signs of Alzheimer’s,” says Tangalos, “but they knew Mary; they knew that she was acting differently. And that’s the trick for families: to recognize when a family member departs from his or her usual pattern of behavior.”

An Alzheimer’s Association survey showed that many people fail to identify symptoms of the disease. For example, 49 percent questioned incorrectly answered that normal forgetfulness, such as misplacing one’s car keys, is a marker for Alzheimer’s. Another 33 percent didn’t know that forgetting simple words or using incorrect words or failing to recognize numbers are in fact indicative of Alzheimer’s.

This confusion about the disease may account for delays between the onset of symptoms and a diagnosis of AD. The Alzheimer’s Association urges people to call them, see a physician and discuss plans for the future. The AA has informational packets about Alzheimer’s symptoms, including one called “Is it Alzheimer’s? Warning signs you should know.”

Educating more people about Alzheimer’s warning signs could mark an important turning point in the care of those with the disease. “Early recognition and diagnosis can help families avoid tragic delays in seeking treatment,” says Tangalos. ‘Medical and behavior interventions can help to sustain a person’s quality of life.”

The 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s

To help family members and health care professionals recognize warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease early, the Alzheimer’s Association (U.S.A.) has developed a checklist of common symptoms of the disease.

1. Recent memory loss that affects job skills

It’s normal to occasionally forget assignments, colleagues’ names or a business associate’s telephone number and remember them later. Those with a dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, may forget things more often and not remember them later.

2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks

Busy people can be so distracted from time to time that they may leave the carrots on the stove and only remember to serve them at the end of the meal. People with Alzheimer’s disease could prepare a meal and not only forget to serve it but also forget they made it.

3. Problems with language

Everyone has trouble finding the right word sometimes, but a person with Alzheimer’s disease may forget simple words or substitute inappropriate words, making his or her sentence incomprehensible.

4. Disorientation as to time and place

It’s normal to forget the day of the week or your destination for a moment. But people with Alzheimer’s disease can become lost on their own street, not knowing where they are, how they got there or how to get back home.

5. Poor or decreased judgment

People can become so immersed in an activity that they temporarily forget the child they’re watching. People with Alzheimer’s disease could forget entirely the child under their care. They may also dress inappropriately, wearing several shirts or blouses on a warm day or very little clothing in cold weather.

6. Problems with abstract thinking

Balancing a checkbook may be disconcerting when the task is more complicated than usual. Someone with Alzheimer’s disease could forget completely what the numbers are and what needs to be done with them.

7. Misplacing things

Anyone can temporarily misplace a wallet or keys. A person with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in inappropriate places: an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.

8. Changes in mood or behavior

Everyone becomes sad or moody from time to time. Someone with Alzheimer’s disease can exhibit rapid mood swings – from calm to tears to anger – for no apparent reason.

9. Changes in personality

People’s personalities ordinarily change somewhat with age. But a person with Alzheimer’s disease can change drastically, becoming extremely confused, suspicious or fearful.

10. Loss of initiative

It’s normal to tire of housework, business activities or social obligations, but most people regain their initiative. The person with Alzheimer’s disease may become very passive and require cues and prompting to become involved.

If you recognize several of these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, the Alzheimer’s Association recommends consulting a physician. A physician can properly diagnose the person’s condition, and sometimes symptoms are reversible. Even if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, help is available to learn how to care for a person with dementia and where to find caregiver assistance.

Editors note: This article is adapted from one that originally appeared in Advances the newsletter of the Alzheimer’s Association, and is used with permission.

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