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Know the Signs of Alzheimer's Disease

Knowing the signs of Alzheimer's disease can help a loved one get help.

We have all occasionally experienced the frustration of misplacing our car keys, forgetting someone's name or losing track of what we wanted to say. Some small memory lapses are a normal part of the aging process and are not cause for alarm.

But when someone forgets the names of family members or what the car keys are for, it may be a sign of an underlying problem: Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that attacks the brain and affects memory, thinking, and behavior. Approximately 5.8 million Americans have the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Recognizing the symptoms

The main sign of the disease is dementia (loss of memory and intellectual function) so severe that it interferes with work and social activities. Problems usually occur in adults middle-aged and older.

It’s important to know the symptoms of dementia so you are able to see the warning signs. “I have seen people have issues with recognizing dangerous situations, such as wandering into traffic or not being properly dressed for bad weather, who have not yet been diagnosed with dementia,” says Stephen Damron, MD.

According to the association, other signs of the disease include:

  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks.
  • Problems with language.
  • Disorientation in time and place.
  • Trouble planning or solving problems.
  • Misplacing things.
  • Poor or decreased judgment.
  • Changes in personality, mood or behavior.
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities.

Diagnosing the disease

There's a definite challenge in diagnosing Alzheimer's. First, there is no single screening test. And the disease can only be diagnosed definitively after death, by an examination of brain tissue.

Further, other disorders—such as depression, brain tumors, Parkinson's disease, stroke, and thyroid disease—have dementia symptoms similar to Alzheimer's. In fact, doctors make a probable diagnosis of the disease by eliminating other possible causes for the symptoms.

A person experiencing dementia needs a complete medical and neurological exam, according to the association. The disease affects people in many different ways, making it difficult to predict how it will progress in any one individual.

Coping with the disease

Living a normal life is nearly impossible when you are dealing with dementia for both the patient and their caretakers. You may be able to help your loved one be more comfortable by being patient and offering items or stories to jog their memory on days that they seem more agitated or confused.

“I know of families that have created scrapbooks that described the life of the one affected by Alzheimer’s. They would go through the scrapbook with their loved one to help with agitation that the disease may cause,” says Dr. Damron.

Reaching out for help

While there is still no cure for Alzheimer's, many of the conditions that cause dementia are treatable. If your loved one shows signs that could indicate Alzheimer's, the association suggests that you schedule an evaluation with your doctor.

If your loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer's, remember that support and help are available. The Alzheimer's Association has local chapters nationwide, which provide services and programs to families affected by the disease. For information, call 800.272.3900.