Alzheimer’s is a slow, progressive disease that affects the brain. In the early stages, it can show up as mild forgetfulness and memory loss. However, it eventually affects logic, reasoning and other cognitive functions. Here are some of the 10 early symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
1. Memory Loss
This is one of the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s, but it’s easy to miss because it’s natural to become more forgetful as they age. Everybody occasionally misplaces their keys, or loses track of the day of the week. Even younger people will get bouts of brain fog and forget a name or word: “I know it, it’s just on the tip of my tongue.”
But as Alzheimer’s progresses, the memory problems can disrupt everyday life. Instead of forgetting a word, they struggle to hold a conversation and may repeat the same phrases over and over again. Instead of forgetting a name, they may be unable to recognize a family member. They may also get lost and disoriented, unable to retrace their steps or remember why they headed out in the first place.
Not all memory loss is caused by Alzheimer’s. It can be a side effect of a medication, or a symptom of tumor, kidney or liver disorders, depression and more. Consult a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.
2. Lack of judgment
Alzheimer’s affects the person’s ability to evaluate a situation and weigh the factors in making a good decision. Some examples:
- They may not recognize danger, and cross the street without checking the traffic.
- They may start making financial impulsive decisions—giving away money even if they can’t afford it, or making odd impulsive purchases.
- Grooming and dressing become problematic. They may stop caring for their appearance or wear inappropriate clothes for the weather.
- They lose social norms and etiquette. They can be rude, become flirty, or touch people inappropriately.
At the beginning, lack of judgment can appear as eccentricity, but it eventually impairs their ability to care for their health and safety.
3. Taking longer to complete familiar tasks
As the brain ages, it’s normal to take longer to learn new skills. However, Alzheimer’s affects their ability to perform tasks that they’ve been doing for decades. For example, they may take a long time to cook dinner because they forget a recipe or where they put ingredients.
They also have a harder time organizing thoughts or logically solving a simple problem. Tasks that have multiple steps—like taking a bath and then getting dressed—can cause confusion.
People who are experiencing Alzheimer’s do notice the changes in their behavior or how people treat them—and not all of them will ask for help. Sometimes they may try to hide their symptoms, and avoid social contact or situations. They may refuse to leave the home even to attend a community gathering or family reunion. Others lose interest in routines and hobbies that they used to enjoy and take pride in, and spend most of their day in bed or looking out the window.
This symptom is caused by both the physical changes to the brain, and psychological effects of losing a sense of control over their life. As the disease progresses, they will need not just the assistance of a caregiver, but the emotional support of family and friends.
5. Changes in personality
Watch for a shift in personality. Someone who is normally very gentle and patient can become snappish and defensive. Someone who is normally very shy may suddenly be very open—perhaps too open—with strangers.
6. Wandering and getting lost
As Alzheimer’s affects their memory and cognitive functions, they may often become disoriented whenever they go out. Initially, they will go out on an errand and forget what they needed to do, or they lose their bearings and can get lost even in a familiar place. They are unable to retrace their steps, so missing a turn can lead to hours of aimlessly wandering around.
As their judgment becomes more impaired, they may make impulsive decisions: boarding a random bus, following strangers. As the disease progresses, they may become more disoriented and lose their sense of time. They may try to go back to a childhood home, or return to a building that has long been demolished.
7. Increased aggression
One of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s is that the person has “No Filters.” They will say what they want, even when it is inappropriate or hurtful. They may come off as rude or overbearing, but this is caused by something beyond their control: the disease affects the cognitive functions that controls communication, social skills, and self-control.
Sometimes, the aggression can become physical. This is caused by multiple factors. As they lose their ability to control impulses, make good judgments and communicate their needs, they will start making poor choices. You will stop them, which will fuel their frustration. They may also be dealing with anxiety and stress, and release them in physical outbursts. In Alzheimer’s forums, families describe it as “feeling that my parent/grandparent/partner has turned into a toddler who has tantrums.”
8. Difficulty with language
While other symptoms—especially in the early, mild stage of Alzheimer’s—can easily be misconstrued as the stereotypical forgetfulness, eccentricity and crankiness of old age, language problems are a clear red flag. They have trouble reading words, or recognizing familiar symbols and logos.
Sometimes, their brain can’t make a connection between a word and an object. They can call a watch a wall clock, or find it difficult to hold a conversation because they forget what words to use.
9. Difficulty with numbers
Aside from having problems with letters, it’s common for people with Alzheimer’s to struggle with numbers. They may recognize the symbol but not the value, which in turn can make even simple computations quite challenging.
Eventually this can affect their ability to manage their own money, or even pay for items they buy at a store.
10. Difficulty with visual images and spatial relationships
Vision problems like poor eyesight or cataracts are common in ageing. But for people with Alzheimers, they have trouble correctly processing the visual information. This includes identifying color and contrast, or judging the distance between objects. In the early and mild cases, it can present as clumsiness. In later stages, the visual impairment can be a safety issue, causing accidents while driving, walking down the stairs, or crossing the road.
Empowering Yourself and Your Family
If you suspect that you or your family member has Alzheimer’s, please see a doctor as soon as you can. There is no “cure” for Alzheimer’s, but there are many resources and support for anyone who is affected by it. Some drugs can help manage the disease, by reducing the symptoms or delaying the progression. You can also find out about alternative treatments, support groups, and other information that can help plan ahead and create a system that works for you.
So if you see these symptoms, don’t delay seeking medical help out of fear or shame. It may not be Alzheimer’s, but it can indicate that you or your family member have another disorder that needs diagnosis and treatment.