Of all the complications and potential disorders related to aging, Alzheimer's disease is perhaps one of the scariest. There is no cure, and scientists aren't entirely sure what causes Alzheimer's in the first place. That's why it's very important to keep an eye out for early signs of Alzheimer's. By diagnosing it as early as possible, your loved one can seek treatments that can slow down the disease, help preserve mental functioning, and allow for time to prepare for the future.
Possible Early Signs of Alzheimer's
Though Alzheimer's doesn't have exclusive rights to dementia -- a term for a number of symptoms that all have to do with debilitating mental-function impairment -- any early signs of memory loss, trouble thinking, or difficulty with reasoning are worth bringing to the attention of a medical specialist trained in memory-disorder evaluation. If your loved one exhibits some or more of the following on a regular basis, consider scheduling them an appointment immediately:
- They continue to ask the same question again and again despite having been answered numerous times.
- They wear the same clothes several days in a row but claim that they are still clean.
- It becomes obvious they aren't bathing or engaging in their usual hygiene regimen for days at a time, yet insist that they have.
- They tell same story again and again -- the exact same way -- as if it had yet to be shared.
- They forget how to do everyday tasks or hobbies that would normally come easily to them, such as cooking.
- They seem to have trouble balancing their checkbook, paying their bills on time, or otherwise maintaining their finances.
- Places that were once familiar to them no longer are so, causing them to get lost or confused.
- They lose household objects repeatedly, only to find them in odd places later.
- They rely on someone else to answer for them, such as a partner or adult child, in situations when they were previously capable of answering questions or making decisions for themselves.
- They make rash decisions, lash out, or display other abnormal behaviors.
You've Made an Appointment, So What Happens Next?
When your loved one goes in for an assessment, the doctors will run a series of tests, looking to rule out other disorders and diseases that could be causing the above symptoms. They will
- Ask many questions about health, past medical history, and changes in behavior or physical ability.
- Test your loved one's cognitive functions, such as memory, problem-solving skills, attention, and ability to count and express language.
- Carry out standard medical tests to rule out other health-related causes.
- Conduct brain scans, such as a CT scan or an MRI.
Some or all of these tests may be repeated over time to compare changes in mental functioning. It's important to prepare yourself and your loved one for long days at the hospital, and set aside time for you both to rest and recover afterward.
Preparing for the Future
While you may not yet have a diagnosis for your loved one, it may benefit you both to prepare for the possibility of Alzheimer's. There are numerous resources out there to help make the process as painless as possible:
- Educate yourself. Learning about Alzheimer's allows you to better know what's to come, emotionally prepping you and your loved one for the changes that will take place. It can also allow you to better plan for the future by knowing what's ahead.
- Create a safe living space. Whether your loved one lives at home or is staying with a family member, it's important to make sure their space meets their safety needs and reflects their symptoms. This home safety checklist is a good place to start.
- Organize financial and legal matters. It may seem rather cold-blooded, but working with your older loved one now -- while they can still offer their personal preferences and information -- can save a lot of heartache down the line.
- Start developing support networks. Illness in the family can be difficult at the best of times, but Alzheimer's can be especially tough, both on the afflicted and those who assume a caretaker role. The Alzheimer's Association offers support groups and message boards for caretakers to help them through this difficult time.
By recognizing the early signs of Alzheimer's and seeking professional help, you've already done a great service to your loved one. Take it one step at a time, and remember to breathe: You are not alone!