Symptoms for Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth-deadliest disease in the United States, typically first appear to people in their mid-60s. Early onset Alzheimer’s — accountable for five percent of all diagnosed cases — can even strike someone in their 40s and 50s.
Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. At this point, there is no cure.
Although all of the causes of this tragic disease aren’t all known, the causes most likely include combinations of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Early-onset Alzheimer’s is usually caused by a genetic mutation, according to the NIA.
“It’s important to watch for memory-related symptoms,” says Joseph Agostini, M.D., Aetna’s national medical director for Medicare. “Earlier detection allows you and your loved ones to plan for future care, as there are significant physical, emotional, and caregiver support needs that can be anticipated as the disease progresses over time.
It’s possible to experience one or more of the following symptoms to varying degrees. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a few tips for early detection:
Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
This can include relying on memory aides or family members for things that typically had been handled on their own, forgetting dates or events and asking for the same information over and over.
Challenges in planning or solving problems.
Some people may experience changes in their ability to follow a plan or work with numbers, like following a familiar recipe or keeping track of their check book or paying monthly bills.
Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.
Some people may have trouble completing daily tasks, such as driving to a familiar location, managing a budget at work or remembering the rules of a favorite game.
Confusion with time or place.
People with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time, such as forgetting where they are or how they got there.
For some people, new vision problems are a sign of Alzheimer’s. They may have difficulty reading, judging distance and determining color or contrast, which may cause problems with driving.
New problems with words in speaking or writing.
People with Alzheimer’s may have trouble following or joining a conversation, such as stopping in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue or they may repeat themselves.
Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
A person with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in unusual places. They may lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. This can occur more frequently over time.
Decreased or poor judgment.
For example, they may use poor judgment when dealing with money, such as giving large amounts to telemarketers or other people they normally would not give money to.
A person with Alzheimer’s may start to remove themselves from hobbies, social activities, work projects or sports. They may have trouble keeping up with a favorite sports team or remembering how to complete a favorite hobby.
Changes in mood or personality.
They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious. They may be easily upset at home, at work, with friends or in unfamiliar places.
Alzheimer’s disease and you
Once diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a person can expect challenges but there are ways to cope, Agostini adds. “Maintaining a routine, staying engaged and active in life, identifying triggers that cause stressful situations, setting goals that fit one’s own personal priorities…these are some of the ways that people often use to empower themselves to live with Alzheimer’s for as long as possible.”
And don’t try to deal with it on your own. Ask questions, learn more about the disease and how others are coping.
“It can help to surround yourself or your family with a good support system that includes others who have been diagnosed,” he says. “Through all of this, it’s important to know that you’re not alone.”