For people of a certain age, it’s not uncommon to seize on any forgetfulness as a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. Lose the car keys, forget a name, read a Top 10 list of dementia’s warning signs and the worry begins.
“Even more epidemic than Alzheimer’s itself is the fear of Alzheimer’s,” said Richard Lipton, who heads the Einstein Aging Study at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
So in an attempt to offer some perspective, here’s a list of opinions from experts on what to watch for.
You shouldn’t automatically fret about dementia if your car keys go missing. It’s when you start forgetting truly important stuff that you should worry.
It’s not necessarily forgetting where your keys are, it’s forgetting what keys are for. Or not knowing what a key is for until you put it in your freezer. It’s that type of change in memory.
The Alzheimer’s Association’s list says you should be concerned about memory loss that disrupts daily life. It goes further, distinguishing between retrieval problems and storage problems. Even a high school student can have trouble retrieving an algebra formula now and then. Such retrieval problems also increase with natural aging. But the key is, the memory is there.
It’s not forgetting someone’s name until you are reminded of it, it is forgetting the person all-together.
Sometimes it’s not even a retrieval problem. In today’s frenzied, multitasking world, people don’t always form memories in the first place. Focusing more attention on tasks at hand might be more helpful than obsessing over what you can’t remember.
Inability to do tasks one used to do well
A person who could never balance his checkbook shouldn’t worry if he has trouble doing so at age 65. But a retired accountant who always balanced his checkbook to the penny and no longer can do that might want to see a physician. Difficulty planning and executing familiar tasks can signal deeper cognitive problems.
Confusion about time or place, or trouble getting around
It’s worrisome if a person becomes lost in a familiar place or goes into a grocery store and becomes confused about how to leave. People may also have trouble with visual images or spatial perception. Noticeable changes in physical mobility —how you walk, the length of your stride and how fast you walk — might also be a tip-off to cognitive decline.
Change in mood, personality
Significant changes in mood might also indicate cognitive decline. Symptoms such as apathy, irritability and agitation, which are similar to those of depression and other psychiatric disorders, may signal dementia’s onset if they are pervasive and out of character, Petersen says. Another telltale sign is withdrawal from family or social life.
Of course, it’s possible that other health problems could be causing symptoms that are also associated with Alzheimer’s. Conditions such as hyperthyroidism, hormonal imbalances, interactions between medications — even poor nutrition or Lyme disease — can mimic signs of cognitive decline. And many of those conditions are easily reversible.
It is so important to talk to a health-care provider if you’re noticing those sorts of changes in yourself or a loved one.
All three experts agree that the common denominator is change — significant differences from one’s lifelong habits of mind and behavior. But it’s also important to keep things in perspective.
For more information on Alzheimer’s care, contact Spring Arbor.
*Experts: Lipton, who also heads the division of cognitive aging and dementia at Montefiore Medical Center; Ronald C. Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center; and Heather M. Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations at the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association.
The Washington Post