Forgetting what day it is or misplacing an item could be nothing more than simply part of getting older. But there are signs of memory loss and confusion that indicate early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Similar to other body parts, the brain changes in structure and ability as people get older, Susann Varano, MD, geriatrician at Maplewood Senior Living, says. “This is cognitive aging and it begins at birth.” It affects attention, problem solving, and learning.
Many sleep disorders and other conditions – sleep apnea, depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and even medications – can affect one’s mental functioning, Dr. Varano says. “Tylenol PM, for example, has Benadryl, which can dampen your brain.” It can make you feel as if you really have dementia when you don’t, she adds.
Anyone forgets a name every once in a while but as long as what you forgot comes back, you’re OK, Dr. Varano says. People let a momentary gap in memory consume them and worry too much. “This is self-sabotage that happens a lot.” You can’t let a minor inconvenience wear you out, she adds.
Are your memory and learning abilities affected to the point where you forget to do basic daily tasks? You should see a doctor if you are having problems with more than one mental function – perception, memory, or thinking – Dr. Varano says.
Changes in language can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s. This is when people can’t name certain objects but have to describe them instead, Dr. Varano says. For example, you don’t say “closet,” but you say “the place where you put your clothes.”
This is a set of mental skills that help you get things done. Losing the ability to organize, plan and carry out a set of tasks in an efficient manner and in a way you have always done before may be a sign of disease, Dr. Varano says. As is the case with most symptoms, in order to be concerning, they need to be happening for a certain period of time.
Think of things like playing chess as an example of complex attention, Dr. Varano says. Do you have more difficulty in situations with more than one stimulus such as watching TV or having a conversation? If tasks that involve holding new information in mind (such as repeating what someone has just said) are a problem, you should see a doctor.
Someone with early signs of Alzheimer’s may not be able to perform familiar tasks at their prior level of ability, Dr. Varano says. “Let’s say Dad is a chef but now can’t organize a simple meal – this is a huge red flag,” she adds. Experiencing significant difficulties with familiar activities, such as using certain tools or even driving a car, can be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
This one is really for doctors to assess, Dr. Varano says. “Does the patient have a reversible condition I can fix?” For example, an infection, a new medication with side effects, a thyroid disorder – all of these can affect one’s cognitive abilities, but aren’t necessarily signs of encroaching dementia.
Are the memory problems accounted for by a mental disorder such as depression or schizophrenia (even if it’s in remission)? “We have to see if it’s active now,” Dr. Varano says. This is another factor that must be considered before linking forgetfulness to dementia, she adds.
Tests can be wrong. If a person is delirious, he or she will score poorly, Dr. Varano says, but that doesn’t mean their condition is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. “A test is a snapshot in time; that’s why we want to see one’s history and meds,” she adds. If a person taking the test has the illness, he or she will not be able to do it at all or won’t know the answers, Dr. Varano says.
“If people are concerned, they should check with a doctor,” Dr. Varano says. “It doesn’t take long and if the test is perfect, then you have one less thing to worry about.” This is much better than to worry all the time when you actually don’t have to because you’re not sick, she adds.
Mild Cognitive Impairment is “getting to be more popular,” Dr. Varano says. “People often think they have a memory deficit, but does it interfere with daily functions?” MCI is equivalent to about 30-40 percent progress toward Alzheimer’s, she adds. In many cases, though, those who suffer from MCI revert to normal cognition or remain stable. “There is no FDA-approved medication to treat MCI or that has proven to help,” Dr. Varano says.
There is medication for Alzheimer’s, but what really helps, Dr. Varano says, is exercise. You need to do aerobic workouts for endurance, resistance training, as well as balance and flexibility exercises such as yoga, she adds. Staying socially active is also important. “I’m a big fan of senior centers,” Dr. Varano says. People need regular mental stimulation — so learn new things, practice memorization, do puzzles and riddles, etc.
Stress is a killer, Dr. Varano says. It takes a toll on your entire body, but especially the brain; it can even lead to brain shrinkage. Avoiding stress is critical to preventing the disease, she adds. Some studies have shown that regular, quality sleep is necessary for flushing toxins from the brain. Plus, poor sleep habits are associated with many other negative effects, such as impaired immunity and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.