Do You Have Alzheimer’s?

How to recognize the signs of Alzheimer's disease.

You keep misplacing the car keys. You totally spaced about your last doctor’s appointment. It seems like every time you try to say one of your children’s names, you say the other one’s. Could it be Alzheimer’s disease?

It’s more likely the result of a hectic schedule, an accumulation of life stressors, or a disorganized personality. As wonderful as our brains are, some are better at multi-tasking than others. It’s when we are most focused on a particular task, situation or problem that other details (like where those elusive car keys are hiding) slip by the wayside.

With Alzheimer’s, short-term memory loss includes an inability to recall what was said or done a few minutes ago. A person with Alzheimer’s may ask you the same question repeatedly – not because they forgot the answer, but because they forgot you answered at all! A person who was once extremely handy may take things apart and forget how to fix them again. An accountant may have difficulty balancing a checkbook. She may have problems finding the right word to say, or even make up words or names when the correct one isn’t available to her.

A person with Alzheimer’s might not only misplace the car keys, but put them in the freezer. He might wear three layers of clothes outside in the summer, and wear shorts in the winter. She might get lost on the way to the neighborhood grocery store, though she’s gone there for years. Sometimes there’s a shift in mood or personality, or new and unusual behavior, like the man who insisted someone colored his hands with markers. Sometimes people just give up their favorite activities because they don’t know how to do them anymore.

How do you know if it’s Alzheimer’s? Usually a friend or family member notices changes in someone first, and may have to strongly suggest that their loved one see a doctor. A battery of tests, including routine blood tests, memory testing, and an MRI or CT, can provide a reasonably accurate diagnosis in the elderly. However, early onset Alzheimer’s is harder for physicians to diagnose, even though an estimated 220,000 or more residents of the United States under the age of 65 have the disease. Almost half of people over the age of 85 are thought to be in some stage of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers are working toward a cure for Alzheimer’s, although they’re still not certain what causes the disease. Nerve cells in the brain need oxygen through the blood vessels to survive. Tangles of protein can build up inside these cells and eventually kill off the individual nerve cells. Also, plaques of built of protein can build up between the nerve cells and cut off communication from cell to cell.

Since there have been links between Alzheimer’s and both heart disease and diabetes, researchers recommend the same (boring) prescription your doctor gives you to avoid diseases in general: Maintain a reasonable weight; eat a low fat, low cholesterol diet, high in antioxidants; avoid alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs; and exercise on a regular basis. On the fun side, engaging in mentally challenging activities, such as Sudoku or the newspaper’s crossword, maintaining social connections, and avoiding head injuries can also help maintain a healthy brain.

As with any other disease, if you or a family member receives an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, obtaining as much information as possible is the key to making educated decisions about the care process.