If you lay your car keys down in a different place than usual but retrace your steps to find them, you are probably experiencing an age-related change. If you lay your car keys down in a different place than usual and blame someone else for moving them or stealing them, you may have Alzheimer’s.
That’s just one of the bizarre little mind tricks that can occur when you have Alzheimer’s disease, according to Leah Challberg, a counselor with the Alzheimer’s Association of Minnesota. Challberg, who is also the lead pastor at Northeast United Methodist Church, outlined the ten signs of Alzheimer’s at a Dec. 5 presentation at Community United Methodist Church, Columbia Heights. About 30 attended the one-hour session.
She started out with some facts: Alzheimer’s dementia affects 5.7 million Americans, and ten percent of people over the age of 65 have it. Of the people who have Alzheimer’s, the majority are over age 75. The first brain changes due to Alzheimer’s can appear as early as 20 years before the first symptoms set in. Alzheimer’s is just one of 100 kinds of memory loss, and it is the most common form of dementia. It’s a slow decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills that results in the loss of brain cells and function.
People with blood circulation problems, diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure may be at risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
The ten warning signs
As she led the group through the common warning signs, Challberg warned that the signs were not in and of themselves diagnostic of the disease. “Misplacing your keys is not memory loss,” she said. “But memory loss that disrupts daily living is not a typical part of the aging process.”
1) Memory loss that disrupts daily life. People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s often can’t remember recently learned information. They may remember something learned 30 years ago because it had time to become “hard-wired” into their brains. They may forget dates, appointments and ask for the same information again and again. They may also rely more on lists and notes. “A person with dementia forgets something and is not aware of it,” Challberg said.
2) Challenges in problem-solving or planning. People with Alzheimer’s have difficulty concentrating; they can’t follow a plan or store information. Challberg said she often sees people reading the same page over and over.
3) Difficulty completing familiar tasks. It’s not the same as learning a new skill such as programming the TV remote. The group viewed a film clip in which a former “clean freak” couldn’t seem to figure out what to do with her laundry.
4) Confusing the date or time of day. “They may not know what season they’re in, or what year.” Some in the audience nodded their heads; they’d seen these behaviors before.
5) Having trouble understanding visual images. Challberg spoke of a man who refused to leave his room at a care facility. The carpeting in the room outside of his was beige with a dark red stripe around the border. “The brain disease affects what the eyes take in,” she said. “To him, that stripe looked like a big hole in the floor, and he wasn’t going to cross it.” She said bold carpet patterns were also confusing, and many Alzheimer’s patients have difficulty judging distances even though their physical vision is fine.
6) New problems with words. Challberg showed a film clip of a reporter who had worked with words all his life, but struggled to speak and could no longer write. “When you ask them a question, they know the answer and they know what they want to say, but the words just don’t come out,” Challberg said.
7) Misplacing things and losing the ability to track them down. As time goes on, this behavior may increase.
8) Decreased or poor judgment. A good money manager may gradually lose control of their checkbook, or fall for every telemarketing scheme that comes their way. Personal hygiene may become a thing of the past.
9) Withdrawal from work or social life. It’s one thing to feel weary about work or social obligations, it’s another to avoid them altogether.
10) Changes in mood or personality. Does your aunt easily become upset? Is she confused, suspicious or depressed, especially when she’s out of her comfort zone?
Dealing with a person undergoing the changes caused by Alzheimer’s can be exhausting. And having the “big talk” with Mom or Dad can be intimidating. Challberg said the patient may not realize they’re going through a change. She offered suggestions for getting relatives to the doctor sooner than later.
1) Write down changes you’ve observed. Has your uncle stopped bathing regularly?
2) Note what else is going on. Depression can mimic dementia. Vitamin deficiencies, dehydration, bladder infections and stress can also cause temporary mental changes.
3) Learn more about behavioral changes.
4) Check in with others such as your siblings or neighbors. Do they see the changes you see? A full-time caregiver may not see the decline as easily as someone who has less frequent contact with the patient. Husbands or wives may be in denial about their spouse’s condition, or may not want to “upset” them.
5) Think about what you’re going to say when you have the conversation. Pick a calm place. Mornings are probably better; brain function may be clearer.
6) When you take Mom or Dad to the doctor, start with their primary care physician. Ask for a MOCA (Montreal Cognitive Assessment). It’s a mini memory test that can help determine if there is some brain malfunction.
Above all, don’t settle for “diagnose and adios.” “People can live a long time with Alzheimer’s and have a good life,” Challberg said.
Below: There are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, as Alzheimer’s Association counselor Leah Challberg pointed out. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)