Raising the red flag on Alzheimer’s disease

Not all memory loss is created equal. Everyone forgets little things from time to time. But when those little things start to become consistent or pervasive, they might be a sign of something bigger.
By Home Care Assistance - January 20, 2020

Home Care Assistance is Changing the Way the World Ages. This is the latest installment of our “How To” series, where we lay out smart and easy-to-understand advice on navigating the aging process.

Memory loss tends to be the number one sign of Alzheimer’s disease – the most common form of dementia, which affects nearly half a million Canadians over the age of 65. But make no mistake about it: dementia itself is not part of the typical, healthy aging process. It’s different.

Alzheimer’s disease isn’t about the occasional lost set of keys, or misplaced reading glasses. It takes shape in the form of memory loss that persists, worsens over time, and eventually affects a person’s ability to function (at home, work or beyond). While we tend to peg forgetfulness as a hallmark of the disease, memory loss is only one symptom.

Which warning bells should you be listening for where Alzheimer’s disease is concerned? Asking these questions is a good place to start:

  1. Is forgetfulness affecting the day to day?

    We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: not all memory loss equals Alzheimer’s disease. What you should be watching for is memory loss that starts to impact someone’s ability to function. Are they forgetting their keys, or forgetting what their keys are for? Did they forget the neighbour’s name, or who the neighbour is?  And importantly, is the memory loss getting worse over time?
     
  2. Are familiar tasks becoming harder to carry out?

    Struggling with everyday jobs that someone’s always done can be a sign that something’s going on. Whether it’s tying shoelaces, getting dressed, or making coffee, if someone is seemingly wrestling with ordinary tasks that used to be easy, take note.
     
  3. Is the conversation flowing?

    Language problems and Alzheimer’s disease can go hand in hand as things progress. That could look like anything from forgetting a term, to swapping the wrong word into a sentence. Tuning in to someone’s ability to provide context, and communicate easily, can help you ensure one-off fumbles aren’t becoming more serious every day foibles.  
     
  4. Are time and place becoming less concrete?

    Disorientation can be confusing at best. If someone starts getting lost in places that are usually familiar, or losing track of which day it is, there could be something going on beneath the surface. Pay attention to someone’s ability to navigate their usual routine, be where they’re supposed to be, and do what they need to do, on a daily basis.
     
  5. Is judgment still sound?

    Impaired reasoning or judgment isn’t always obvious – especially if you’re not with someone around the clock. But taken together with other signs, it can be a symptom of early Alzheimer’s disease. You might have to do some digging to assess whether someone you love is still using sound judgment. Think broad on this one, and keep an eye out for signs that someone may be making questionable decisions and choices. Are they venturing out in sub-zero temperatures wearing light clothing? Failing to recognize a health issue that’s popped up and merits a doctor’s visit? If you suspect someone’s judgment might be off, look for clues in their daily life.
     
  6. Has big picture thinking become harder?

    Abstract thinking is the bridge between reading numbers on a calculator, and understanding the concept of what those numbers represent. With Alzheimer’s disease, putting information into context and understanding the big picture can become difficult. Someone who’s struggling with the meaning of information – like a number, result, or sentence – and no longer understands how to use it may be giving you a sign that something isn’t quite right.  
     
  7. Are things out of place?

    Everyone’s misplaced an item before. But with Alzheimer’s disease, this symptom is less about losing something and more about putting an item away in a completely inappropriate spot. Think a carton of milk in a cupboard, or a bag of lemons in a sock drawer. This kind of misplacing on a regular basis can be a sign that someone’s struggling.
     
  8. What’s the mood?

    Mood swings – especially severe ones – are often associated with Alzheimer’s disease. When a person begins flashing quickly from one mood to another, pay attention. Flipping from easy going to quick tempered, and vice versa, can be indicative of a wider issue, especially if it becomes a more consistent part of someone’s general behaviour.
     
  9. Is personality recognizable?

    Changes in personality are common red flags that someone may be grappling with a deeper issue. Have you noticed someone behaving out of character? Does the person you know best feel uncharacteristically worried or threatened? Are you getting a sense of paranoia during your visits?
     
  10. What’s the motivation level?

    Loss of initiative can take many forms. Someone in the early stages of Alzheimer’s might start losing interest in their hobbies or favourite activities. You may notice they start declining invitations, or show a seeming lack of interest in friends and family. If you’re noticing this more and more, it’s a symptom worth addressing.

Closing thoughts

A diagnosis like Alzheimer’s disease is a lot. Seeing signs and symptoms arise in someone you love can be scary. But taking action early can help. If something you’re noticing is setting off your internal alarm bells, it’s always better to talk to the doctor. Signs like these can be indicative of many different issues. Take notes, raise your concerns, and get informed. The sooner you do, the better able you’ll be to help your loved one move forward with confidence.

References:

Public Health Agency of Canada

Government of Canada

National Institute on Aging

Mayo Clinic

Alzheimer’s Society Canada

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