Given that June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness month, it’s important that you know the facts about the disease and its impact on our population here in the US. Believe it or not, more than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease —and someone new, maybe someone you know, develops the disease every 66 seconds.
So what exactly is Alzheimer's disease? Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia, a general term for a progressive brain condition that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases. Unfortunately, these conditions ultimately lead to a loss of ability to take care of basic functions in everyday life. Although most people think of dementia as a disease that affects the elderly (and it is most common in people over the age of 65), the condition is not simply a “normal” part of growing older.
Signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias can vary from person to person, but here are the most common early symptoms to watch out for:
- Memory loss that disrupts your daily activities. It’s normal to occasionally forget the name of a person or place, only to remember it an hour later. What’s not normal is to constantly ask the same question, over and over again, or routinely forget something that you were just told.
- Trouble with time or place. Everyone forgets the date occasionally, but people suffering from Alzheimer’s routinely forget the day or time of year. Others find themselves in a location and wonder how they got there.
- Issues with planning or problem solving. Trouble following simple plans like paying your household bills or balancing a checkbook is a common problem for people with Alzheimer’s. Another is following directions like those listed in a recipe.
- Difficulty completing familiar tasks or activities. Things that you do all the time can become more difficult, like remembering the rules of your favorite card game or the directions to a store that you’ve visited a million times.
- Vision problems. Many people experience vision changes as they get older. More concerning is when a person cannot differentiate between two different colors or has trouble reading words on a page (even if they have on their reading glasses).
- Sudden problems with speaking and writing. Many of those with Alzheimer’s will struggle to follow a conversation or routinely lose their train of thought when they’re speaking. When talking and writing, they often can’t think of the words to express themselves.
- Losing things. Alzheimer’s can affect your ability to retrace your steps to remember when and where you placed an object. It’s also common to put something where it doesn’t belong, for example, like placing your wallet in the refrigerator or your hat in a kitchen cabinet.
- Lapses in judgement. Someone suffering from Alzheimer’s can make out-of-character decisions like choosing to give a large sum of money to someone they barely know or making an extravagant purchase without a second thought. It’s also common to see a lapse in basic daily hygiene routines like neglecting to shower or change clothes.
- Social withdrawal. If suffering one or more of the symptoms mentioned above, a person may stop socializing or participating in activities that they previously enjoyed because they can’t keep up with the conversation or remember how to do the activity.
- Personality and mood changes. It’s common for people with Alzheimer’s to experience changes in their personality or suffer from mood swings. Someone who was previously light hearted and carefree can seem anxious, depressed or out of sorts, especially if they are out of their comfort zone.
If you or a loved one has routinely displayed one or more of these signs, you should speak with your physician as soon as possible. They will do a physical examination, review your medical history, and will usually perform a pencil-and-paper exam to test your memory, thinking and problem solving skills. If needed, your physician will refer you to a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in treating brain and nervous system problems.
Remember: the sooner you see a doctor the better. An early diagnosis increases your likelihood of receiving treatment that can lessen some of the symptoms of Alzheimer's and help you remain independent for a longer period of time. There are also sometimes opportunities for patients to participate in clinical trials, in an effort to discover more effective and lasting treatments for the disease.Dr. Seth Gale is a neurologist at South Shore Hospital and a member of the Department of Neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is currently accepting new patients. To make an appointment to see Dr. Gale, please call the Department of Neurology at 781-624-8448.