What are the signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

From: Finding Your Way, written by Dr. Linda Rhodes

Question: What are the signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

Answer: Dementia is an umbrella term (literally meaning without mind) for the progressive loss of thinking, judgement, and ability to focus and learn. More than half of dementia cases are caused by Alzheimer’s a disease named after the physician who discovered it back in 1906. No one is exactly sure what causes Alzheimer’s, but generic factors are definitely in the mix. The second leading cause of dementia is the death of brain cells due to mini-strokes that block blood supply. These small, successive strokes oftentimes go unnoticed as they chip away at the brain. People with high blood pressure and diabetes are at considerable risk for this type of dementia.

We all become distracted, forget names and misplace our keys. So, how do you know when forgetfulness slides in the world of dementia? The Alzheimer’s Association has developed a list of warning signs of Alzheimer’s. If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s time to go to a doctor.

  1. Memory loss affecting job skills. Frequently forgetting assignments, colleague’s names, appears confused for no reason.
  2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks. Easily distracted, forgetting what they were doing or why. Might prepare a meal, forget to serve it, or that they made it.
  3. Problems with language. Forgetting simple words or substitutes inappropriate words, doesn’t make sense.
  4. Disorientation to time and place. May become lost on the street, not knowing where they are, how they got there, or how to get back home.
  5. Poor or decreased judgement. Usually exhibited through inappropriate clothing, poor grooming. Forgets to wear a coat when it’s cold, or wears a bathrobe to the store.
  6. Problems with abstract thinking. Exhibts trouble with numbers, can no longer make simple calculations.
  7. Misplaces things. Not only loses things, ut places things in inappripate places, like placing a purse in the freezer, a wristwatch in a sugar bowl. Has no idea how they got there.
  8. Mood or behavior changes. Exhibts more rapid mood swings for no apparent reason.
  9. Changes in personality. Dramatic change in personality, someone who was easy going now appears extremely uptight. Becoming suspicious and fearful is commonly reported.
  10. Loss of initiative. Becomes extremely disinterested and uninvolded in things that they used to enjoy.

Your parent’s primary physician ought to be able to rule out any reversable causes, such as a drug reaction. After that, he or she needs to be seen by a geriatrition or a neurologist (an MD who specializes in the nervous system). A full work-up takes about two to three hours. The phsyician should listen to you and other family members describe changes in your parent.

Use the Top Ten Warning Signs list and note the behaviors you’ve seen under each one of them. We’re looking for changes here, so do NOT count typical, life-long habits of absentmindedness.

Since there is no definite, proof-positive test to diagnose Alzheimer’s, doctors rely on a battery of tests to rule everything else out. Between five and ten percent of cases of apparent dementia are caused by a condition that can be revered. This might be a good point to use to convince your Mom or Dad to be evaluated. They may be trying to hide their symptoms for fear of Alzheimer’s and refuse to see a doctor. Letting them know that there are a number of possible causes might alleviate their fears and encourage them to find out what’s really wrong. Either way it turns out, your parent and you will be better off knowing the truth.