Memory loss. Confusion. Trouble managing money and daily tasks. Could it be a vitamin deficiency or medication side effects? Yes.
It could also be Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia--loss of memory and the ability to think and reason—that is serious enough to interfere with daily life. It progressively destroys the parts of the brain that control thought, memory, and language.
Memory loss is the most common early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. This might include forgetting important dates or events, asking the same questions repeatedly, or relying on written or electronic reminders about tasks that were once second nature. Other signs of early Alzheimer’s disease may include:
Over time, Alzheimer’s can cause confusion and disorientation, making it difficult to keep track of not only dates but also seasons and the passage of time. People with Alzheimer’s may forget where they are or how they got there. They may become suspicious, depressed, fearful, or anxious. Losing things and accusing others of stealing them is common, as is impaired decision-making or judgment, especially when it comes to dealing with money or personal hygiene.
As the diseases progresses, people may be unable to cope with new situations learn new things, or perform multi-step tasks, like getting dressed. They may behave impulsively or experience hallucinations, delusions, or paranoia.
People with severe Alzheimer’s may have trouble with vocabulary--using the wrong names for familiar objects--or following or joining a conversation, which may lead to social withdrawal. Eventually, they lose the ability to walk, speak, and swallow, and become completely dependent on caregiving as their body shuts down.
Although Alzheimer’s largely affects adults aged 65 and older, it can strike people much younger, says Kellyann Niotis, MD, a preventative neurologist at WCM’s Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic. “Alzheimer’s disease can start forming in the brain as early as your 20s or 30s, although the classic symptoms of memory loss typically don’t appear until age 65 or older,” Dr. Niotis says. People can develop the disease as early as age 50, but early-onset Alzheimer’s is rare, she adds.
Scientists do not yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease, although age is the best-known risk factor, and family history may play a role. “Early-onset Alzheimer’s is typically familial and due to rare genetic mutations that cause abnormal proteins to build up in the brain,” Dr. Niotis says. “Family history is an important factor to consider in late-onset Alzheimer’s as well, as it is a strong predictor of risk and age of onset.” Other characteristics may affect your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease, such as biological sex, race, ethnicity, and genetics.
Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, being physically active, eating nutritiously, limiting alcohol consumption, and not smoking may help reduce the risk. “Research has shown that 40% of Alzheimer’s cases may be preventable based on modifiable risk factors,” Dr. Niotis says. Based on current scientific evidence, she suggests:
If you or someone you love is experiencing memory lapses, don’t assume it’s Alzheimer’s. Speak with your doctor who will likely consider--and test--for other causes, such as tumor, Parkinson’s disease, sleep disorder, infection, or a different type of dementia, some of which may be treatable and possibly reversible.
If you do receive an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, then start treatment as soon as possible to preserve daily functioning for as long as possible. “The scientific and medical communities are making strides with treatments to slow down the progression of disease, but the key is to diagnose early,” Dr. Niotis says. “In the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, we believe knowledge is power in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.” The clinic uses an expanded clinical and medical history, genetics, blood-based biomarkers, and cognitive testing to create individualized risk-reduction plans based on the best evidence for Alzheimer’s prevention. “We have also created a free online course with comprehensive information about Alzheimer’s, prevention, and treatment,” Dr. Niotis notes.
“The greatest misconception people have about Alzheimer’s is that there is nothing they can do to protect their brain, but that is not true,” Dr. Niotis says. “About four out of every ten cases are preventable and the remaining six may be delayed for one, two or even five years. You do have the power to make brain-healthy choices now that can impact your risk of developing the disease later.”