As people get older they often forget things. Day to day occurrences like forgetting names, appointments or how to use the microwave are commonplace as we age. Adults in the developed world are today, living much longer than they were 40 years ago. As a result, an increase in brain cell death has been found in those over 50. Like all types of dementia, Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that causes a slow decline in memory or reasoning skills. It can be difficult to differentiate from daily forgetfulness but it can be treated to temporarily improve symptoms if identified early enough.
What are the causes of Dementia?
No one knows specifically what causes any form of dementia but it has been linked to head injuries, strokes, brain tumours or cerebrovascular disease. Dementia is a syndrome, not specifically a disease but a group of symptoms that affects cognitive tasks in an individual. It is an umbrella term that Alzheimer’s disease can fall under. It can occur due to a variety of conditions, the most common of which is Alzheimer’s disease.
You are more likely to develop dementia as you age. It occurs when brain cells are damaged. Alzheimer’s disease is believed to be responsible for about 50 to 70 percent of all cases of dementia.
Causes of dementia can include;
- Progressive brain cell death
- Neurodegenerative disease
- Injury – post-traumatic dementia
- Vascular diseases
- Chronic Drug Use (prescribed and non-prescribed)
- Thyroid abnormalities, vitamin deficiencies
It is important to note though that these are not the only causes and by no means definitive. A perfectly healthy adult in later life (even as young as 30’s / 40’s / 50’s) can suddenly develop one of the many forms of Dementia and it is important to understand the symptoms so that you can help make their life as comfortable as possible. For the purposes of this article, however, the focus is on Alzheimer’s disease which is the most common form in the United Kingdom.
How can I spot the onset of Alzheimer’s in a family member or friend?
It is important to remember that as people age, they will typically forget things. As a guide, we’ve listed 10 “warning signs” that you may look for, where 6 or 7 of them are commonplace. To make it easier we’ve also listed “common age-related changes” below so that you can decide whether it is actually a symptom or just forgetfulness linked to older age.
1) Confusion with Time or Place
A sign of Alzheimer’s is where a person loses track of the passage of time – dates, times of the year. They may have trouble understanding something if it’s not happening immediately. Quite often they will forget how they got there or where they are.
What is common for an age-related change: Confusion about the day of the week but remembering it later.
2) Mood Changes and a dramatic change in Personality
The personality of people with dementia and specifically Alzheimer’s can alter over a short space of time. They may become easily upset at work, with friends or family and specifically in places outside of their immediate comfort zone. They can show signs of confusion, depression, act suspicious, fearful or constantly anxious. Routines can change as a result.
What is common for an age-related change: Becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted or developing very specific ways of doing things. Routines are not necessarily an indicator of Alzheimer’s, people change routines to suit the environment as they grow older but can they be important when compared with other warning signs.
3) Withdrawal from social activities or daily commitments such as work
An individual’s tastes changes with age but someone with Alzheimer’s disease may start to remove themselves from work projects, sports, social activities or hobbies. They may suddenly avoid attending social activities because they’ve noticed changes themselves. More importantly, they may suddenly forget how to do a long-time favourite hobby or have trouble keeping up to date with their favourite sports team.
What is common for an age-related change: General weariness towards social obligations, family occasions or work. People become more tired as they get older and it is important to realise that they are less likely to feel as engaged as they used to when it comes to regular events or more importantly work.
4) Memory loss that disrupts daily life
One of the most common signs, especially in the early stage is forgetting recently learned information. Asking for the same information over and over (increasingly relying on aides – reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to easily remember on their own. Dates and events are common to this pattern but are more realistic as a symptom if the information is asked for a number of times.
What is common for an age-related change: Forgetting names or appointments is commonplace at all ages. It becomes more regular as people get older but typically those not suffering from a dementia related syndrome will remember these at a later date. This is why it is difficult to spot unless combined with a number of the other “warning signs” listed here.
5) Familiar tasks at home, work or leisure become more difficult to complete
A sudden change in the ability and frequency to complete common/familiar tasks can be a sign that the person is having difficulty with Alzheimer’s. They may begin to struggle to manage a routine task at work, have difficulty driving to the home of a family member or suddenly fail to understand the rules of games they’ve played regularly for a number of decades. Daily and regular tasks are often the first things the individual struggles with and can be an extremely frustrating experience for them and those close to them.
What is common for an age-related change: Occasionally needing prompting to record something on TV or forgetting what the settings are on a washing machine for a particular type of rinse.
6) Difficulty in planning tasks or solving what were once deemed simple problems
Concentration is affected through age but signs that things aren’t too good include taking much longer to complete tasks that were simple to the individual in the past. Following a plan or working with numbers can become a headache with the person having trouble remembering steps in a familiar recipe for a meal or keeping track of monthly finances. Each individual is different as they get older but someone who has been an accountant or a chef all their professional life doesn’t typically forget the basics of either vocation over a short period of time.
What is common for an age-related change: Making occasional mathematical errors or forgetting an ingredient in a well-known recipe. Again, it is best to take into account all signs rather than individual oddities.
7) Visual images and spatial relationships causing concern to the individual
Deteriorating Vision can be a symptom of Alzheimer’s. Judging distances, determining colours or difficulty reading are all commonplace as the brain shrinks through the disease. The person may become frustrated at no longer being able to recognise simple sentences or judge depths as easily as they could in the past and this can manifest in dangerous ways such as problems with driving.
What is common for an age-related change: Vision changes with age normally and can be exaggerated by other ailments such as cataracts. Checking with an optician can help ease concern.
8 ) Decreased sense of judgement
Alzheimer’s may cause changes to judgement or decision making in the individual. For example, they may pay less attention to their own personal hygiene, grooming or may use poor judgement when dealing with money. This can be more noticeable in those that were either extremely conscious of their grooming habits or particularly thrifty with their finances.
What is common for an age-related change: Everyone makes bad decisions from time to time. People tend to make more as they get older. Bear that in mind when considering whether this is something that is commonplace for the individual in question.
9) Speech problems or difficulty in writing
Alzheimer’s causes people to have difficulty following or joining in conversations. They may suddenly stop mid-sentence without knowing how to continue, or they may begin to repeat themselves. They may remember vividly instances from their youth but struggle to explain an event that happened two days ago. Likewise, their vocabulary may start to deteriorate making them use the wrong words or call things by the wrong name (e.g. calling a “watch” a “wrist clock”).
What is common for an age-related change: Everyone forgets words from time to time and this increases as people get older. The frequency of which this happens, especially if the person were for example an English literature lecturer could dictate whether this is really a symptom of Alzheimer’s or just a sign of old age.
10) Losing the ability to retrace steps or misplacing items
A person with Alzheimer’s may put things in unusual places. They may lose items and be unable to retrace their steps to find them. Sometimes they may accuse others of taking items without consent. This may occur more frequently as the disease advances.
What is common for an age-related change: With busy lives, many people often lose items and struggle to retrace steps to find them. It is common to misplace something and then only remember where later. The frequency of this happening is one of the key factors in establishing a link to Alzheimer’s especially if the individual becomes adamant that someone else is regularly “hiding” or “stealing” items.
If you or someone you care about is experiencing 6 or 7 of the listed items above on a regular basis, please seek the advice of a doctor to find the cause. Early diagnosis allows you and the individual to seek treatment and plan effectively for their future.
TutorCare offers a range of training courses regarding awareness for the different kinds of dementia. These courses are CQC recommended and help professionals and family members recognise the early symptoms and assist in their longer-term care. Courses can be arranged on site for Dementia Awareness, supporting people with Dementia and Dementia champions with courses combined where deemed appropriate.
For a full range of our Mental Health Care courses please visit – https://tutorcare.co.uk/care-training-courses/mental-health-care
Sources: Medicalnewstoday.com, healthline.com, alzheimersresearchuk.org, alzheimers.org.uk
You can make a donation to the UK’s Alzheimer’s Society by visiting here – https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/donate