Have you found yourself worried because you forget where you put your car keys? Or are you concerned that your aging loved one is having problems remembering the names of family members? It can be alarming to second-guess the cognitive capabilities of ourselves or our older loved ones. However, you can find some relief in the form of empowerment by knowing what signs of cognitive decline should lead you to call the doctor and which signs are normal.
Here’s what you need to know about the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s and what to do if you notice them in yourself or someone you love.
Alzheimer's and Dementia vs. Normal Aging
Most of us have misplaced our keys or smartphone at least every once in a while. For some of us, we misplace them once a week. These random “where did I put that?” moments are commonplace for anyone of any age, but the older we get, the more common they become. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, such as the fact that we have more responsibilities and more on our minds as we get older or just general disorganization.
While we can become more distracted as we age, it’s important to note that dementia is not a normal sign of aging. Not everyone who gets older will end up with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. However, the World Health Organization reports that more than 55 million people around the globe currently live with some type of dementia, with about 10 million new cases being diagnosed each year. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, about 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease.
If you aren’t sure about the differences between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, or if you use the terms interchangeably, you aren’t alone. Many family members only get a quick education about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia after a loved one is diagnosed.
Here is what you need to know about the most common type of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia
There are many different types of dementia, which is a general term used to describe a group of conditions that lead to memory loss, language difficulties, problem-solving challenges, and social skills.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia
While other types of dementia, such as Lewy body or vascular, are common diagnoses among the older population, Alzheimer’s is by far the most common. About 60-70 percent of dementia diagnoses are Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s diagnoses are projected to grow
As the baby boomer generation continues to get older, the number of people living with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to grow as well. By 2050, experts estimate that 13 million people will be living with the disease.
While Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia can feel quite scary to older adults and their loved ones, you can empower yourself by understanding when to be worried and what to do next.
Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease
So, when do you start to worry when the “where did I put that?” moments seem to be coming more often than not? The easy answer to this question is to take notice when those forgetful moments begin to impact daily life.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease, which means it gets worse over time. This means that adults often show signs and symptoms long before they are diagnosed. However, thanks to more awareness, family members are sometimes able to notice red flags and follow up with a physician sooner rather than later. In addition to forgetfulness, there are other symptoms that, if they affect daily life, are often forerunners to a dementia diagnosis.
Not all of us are very organized, but even someone who has always been disorganized can become even more so in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Examples of disorganization that affect daily life might be never knowing where their purse or wallet is, misplacing important documents regularly, or not being able to plan meals.
Inability to keep up with bills or work
Similarly, people living in the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease find it nearly impossible to keep up with recurring tasks that they haven’t had problems with before. Does Mom suddenly have unpaid monthly bills? Is Dad forgetting to dial in for his consulting calls regularly? Maybe you are noticing a lot of Post-it reminder notes stuck throughout the house. These could be signs that there is trouble.
Again, we have all struggled to find certain words or names during a conversation. However, when those word-finding difficulties begin to affect daily life, it could be a red flag. An example of how word-finding challenges can affect daily life is if someone stops attending their beloved Bible study group because they feel embarrassed when they can’t think of the words they want.
Avoiding social engagements or regular get-togethers
It isn’t just word-finding challenges that can keep someone from attending their favorite social events. People living with early-stage dementia often know something isn’t quite right and they may feel embarrassed or anxious about putting themselves in social situations.
Getting lost or having bouts of confusion
Did Dad call you from the grocery store parking lot because he couldn’t remember his way home? Getting lost is a common sign of early-stage dementia and can be frightening for the senior as well as the family member.
Remember, the key to knowing if you should be worried or not is to determine if the symptom affects daily life. If it does, it’s time to call the doctor and schedule an appointment to discuss what is going on.
What to Do If You Notice Early Signs of Dementia
Now that you have determined that the signs you are seeing in your loved one do indeed affect daily life, it’s time to begin advocating for them by taking steps to get them the support they need.
First things first is a medical diagnosis and plan. If you notice early signs of dementia in yourself or your loved one, the first step is to call the doctor. Once that appointment is scheduled, take some time to jot down specific situations when you have observed concerning signs. Be as thorough as possible; the more information you can share with the doctor, the better they can understand the full picture of what might be happening.
You can also talk about your concerns with your loved one. Chances are that they are noticing some signs themselves, which can be scary and feel quite isolating. If they have the chance to talk about it, they might feel better sharing their feelings with you. Don’t be afraid to open up the conversation so you can work together to get them the support and resources they need to feel their best.
While you can share with other siblings or trusted family members, steer clear from giving too much information about the situation to friends or neighbors. Wait until you have a full diagnosis before you begin to share it with others.
Finally, your time with the doctor will include plenty of discussion and questions so they can determine the next steps. They might encourage you to schedule an additional appointment with a neurologist or begin a medication regimen to slow down any disease progression. Write down their instructions so you can refer to them later, and be sure to ask any questions you might have.
Planning Next Steps
Now that you have taken care of the medical side of the diagnosis and plan, it’s time to begin thinking about safety, socialization, and empowering your loved one to make as many decisions as possible about their future.
Thanks to early diagnosis, the diagnosed person can be very involved with future planning and advocate for their own wishes. Include your loved one as you begin to get their affairs in order and as you look into memory care living options. Memory care communities are specialized senior living communities that are designed specifically to support those living with dementia. While you or your loved one might not need memory care support quite yet, it’s never too early to begin looking at your options and the benefits of these unique communities.
Memory care communities not only provide a safe and comfortable environment where people living with dementia can receive the support and oversight they need, but these communities can also provide support for their family members. You can begin researching memory care communities near you with a quick online search, but be sure you find a community that suits your budget and your location needs.
Learn more about memory care, as well as other senior living options, by downloading our free resource, The Complete Guide to the Range of Senior Living Options.