Spotting the Signs of Alzheimer's

Early diagnosis gives individuals a better chance of benefiting from treatment and helps them plan for their future

What are the warning signs of Alzheimer's?
Family members, friends and co-workers are usually the first to notice the problems.The affected person may or may not be aware of any changes. A person with any of the following symptoms should see a doctor for an evaluation.

  • Memory loss that affects job skills. It's normal to occasionally forget an assignment or a colleague's phone number. But it's not normal to forget things frequently or to be so confused or unable to concentrate that you can't do your work.
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks. Once again, it's normal to go to the store and forget to buy an item you wanted. But it's another matter to forget to pay for your purchases at the store.
  • Problems with language. Just about everyone has drawn a blank on someone's name, but forgetting names of common items or forgetting simple words and substituting inappropriate ones may be a sign of Alzheimer's.
  • Disorientation to time and place. It's normal to lose track of the time or momentarily get disoriented in an unfamiliar setting, but people with Alzheimer's can forget what year it is or get lost in their own home.
  • Loss of judgment. Forgetting to bring an umbrella when it looks like rain is an ordinary oversight. But not knowing to bring an umbrella when it's about to rain is a warning sign. So is wearing a winter coat on a hot day, wandering along a busy highway in the middle of the night or leaving a young child all alone.
  • Problems with abstract thinking. Many people make an occasional mistake in their checkbook or have trouble figuring out fractions in a recipe. People with Alzheimer's, though, may forget how to add and subtract, or fail to recognize numbers.
  • Misplacing things. Being careless or disorganized may make it hard to find your car keys or eyeglasses. But people with Alzheimer's may put the car keys in the freezer, then not recall where they are. Or they may look for their glasses in strange places, such as the fish bowl, and not think their behavior is odd.
  • Changes in mood or behavior. Everyone feels moody at times, but rapid changes in mood without cause - laughing one moment, shouting in anger the next - are not normal.
  • Changes in personality. As people mature and age, their personalities may gradually change. A person with Alzheimer's, though, undergoes dramatic, often sudden, changes. For instance, a cheerful, outgoing person may become timid and suspicious.
  • Loss of initiative. It's normal to get bored with the daily grind of work and home every so often and lack the energy to start chores. It's not normal to have to be prompted and encouraged to do ordinary tasks, such as dressing or taking a forkful of food.

Is it normal or is it Alzheimer's?
Most of us forget to do things at times. Many of us misplace our keys or eyeglasses on occasion. Usually these are just normal glitches in how our memories work. How can these normal events be distinguished from Alzheimer's warning signs?

Simply put, it's a matter of degree. Doctors explain that you need to look at the functional consequences of what someone can't remember. For example, if mom forgets where she put her car in the parking lot at the mall, that may be normal. But if she walks home from the mall because she forgot she took her car, that's not.