Although awareness of Alzheimer’s disease has grown, it often goes undiagnosed in its earlier stages. The hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss and because the progression can be so gradual, early signs are frequently mistaken for normal side effects of aging. However, it is important to take any changes in cognitive capability seriously and report them to your loved one’s primary care physician or memory specialist.
Memory loss can be a sensitive issue, but there are ways you can watch for warning signs without alerting or alarming your loved one. We’ve put together a checklist of behaviors you can watch out for during your usual visits.
Repetition. Does your loved one tell the same stories repeatedly throughout the course of a single visit? Do they ask the same questions over and over, or echo the same phrases (i.e. “Thank you for bringing my groceries”)?
Forgetfulness. Alzheimer’s is not as much about forgetting old memories as it is being unable to form new ones. If your loved one is unable to retain new information despite being told repeatedly (the name of your daughter’s new boyfriend, for example), this could be a sign of abnormal memory impairment.
Learning difficulties. Did you give your elderly parent a new Kindle for Christmas, but observe that they’re struggling to master using it? Retaining new information is one of the earliest challenges faced in the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Poor judgment. Evidence of poor judgment can include excessive spending, falling prey to telemarketers, or neglecting common sense safety concerns, especially those they used to follow.
Reduced interest in hobbies. Any change in normal behavior is worth noting, but a withdrawal from activities your loved one used to enjoy is a significant red flag, especially when the change doesn’t coincide with any limitations caused by their physical health.
Irregular speech patterns. Aphasia—impairment in using and understanding language—is one of the central characteristics of Alzheimer’s. If you notice your loved one struggling to find the right word, rambling, or becoming frustrated and ending conversations abruptly, take note.
Mood and personality changes. These changes can be among the most unsettling for friends and family, when a loved one who has always been even-tempered starts frequently lashing out in anger, or someone who was the life of the party becomes quiet and withdrawn. All brain changes should be taken seriously, even if they don’t seem directly related to memory.
The best thing you can do for a loved one who begins displaying cognitive changes is to keep track of the progression of their symptoms. That information will be immensely valuable to a physician, and will make it easier to diagnose the disease in its earliest stages and begin a treatment program while it is most effective.