You totally spaced on grabbing your gym bag (or lunch…or apartment keys…or cell phone…) on your way to work in the morning. Or, you forgot to submit your cable bill payment online last week. Hey, no judgment—when it comes to getting older, forgetting stuff is part of the deal. But what if your memory loss doesn’t seem like a typical part of getting older, and this is happening, like, all the time?
If you’re a woman, that’s a serious question to consider. Two-thirds of all Alzheimer’s patients and caregivers are female, according to the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement, meaning women are disproportionately affected by the disease.
While the reasons behind that reality aren’t totally clear, hormones are likely at play. “Women who have had hysterectomies, gone through early menopause, or had any early loss of estrogen are particularly vulnerable,” says David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, neurologist and geriatric psychiatrist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. “We know estrogen has a protective effect on the brain and supports healthy brain function.”
To make matters worse, Dr. Merrill says the psychological and cognitive processes of getting older mimic the early warning signs of dementia syndromes (Alzheimer’s is the most common one). So it can be easy to dismiss these first signs of brain degeneration as run-of-the-mill aging.
Getting familiar with the early and first signs of the disease here—straight from neurologists!—will make you that much more prepared to take action if and when you notice something seems off with you or someone you love down the line.
1. Your loss of memory is impacting your day-to-day life.
You’re about to order your a.m. latte from your local coffee shop when you realize you can’t remember the barista’s name…and she serves you five days a week. Is that bad?
Probably not, says Henry Paulson, MD, PhD, neurologist and director of the University of Michigan’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “As we age, our brains change,” he says. “It’s normal for things like our speed of thinking and recall of names to slow down.”
Alzheimer’s-related memory loss is more than just not being able to remember someone’s name. “[We’re talking about] forgetting major events or having a loss of whole episodes,” Dr. Paulson explains. For example, “You don’t remember going on a beach vacation for three days with your family or attending your grandchild’s birthday party last weekend,” he says.
Paulson adds that misplacing items—like consistently putting your car keys in the fridge or not knowing what room to find your toothbrush—also falls under the umbrella of memory loss, along with not knowing what day of the week or month it is.
One more thing: Sometimes people will rely too heavily on tricks like repetition or note-taking to force themselves to remember things they know they’ll forget—so if you (or a loved one) notice you’re doing this, it’s worth seeing a neurologist.
2. You are having issues with language and vision.
If you’re struggling with speaking or writing or experiencing visual impairments, it’s also time to contact your doc. Early brain degeneration can make it hard to communicate and engage with your environment.
“You might notice spatial changes in your vision or even have difficulty perceiving the world around you,” explains Dr. Paulson. “When you speak, you’re having to take the long way around and come up with other phrases to explain what you need because you can’t remember the exact word.”
Again, these problems go beyond squinting at the television from across the room or writing the wrong date on your checks, which are all normal parts of aging; early Alzheimer’s symptoms would likely be more obvious and ongoing.
3. You can’t seem to problem solve or use good judgment.
There are several red flags to look out for within this category, including trouble completing tasks, problem-solving, and displaying poor judgment. According to Dr. Paulson, our brains have to process a range of information in order to productively move through our day-to-day lives. The degeneration brought on by early Alzheimer’s can make something as simple as choosing what to order for lunch a complicated decision.
People in early stages of the disease may show other signs of cognitive deterioration such as being unable to follow directions or recipes, making serious financial errors, or struggling to maintain a healthy hygiene routine, per the Alzheimer’s Association.
4. You’re withdrawing from your social life.
Did you (or your aging mother, perhaps) used to be the life of every party—but now you’re staying home more and more often from social gatherings? You could be experiencing a normal decrease in energy…or it could be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Paulson says when brain degeneration makes it hard to remember commitments, participate in conversations, or engage fully in social events, many people begin to withdraw from these activities.Sometimes this is a symptom of depression (which also shouldn’t be ignored), but either way it’s important to seek help if someone’s behavior seems out of character for them.
5. Your mood or personality seems drastically different.
Speaking of out-of-character behavior, when you or someone you love starts acting like a total stranger, it’s time to take those changes seriously.
“This is a little more rare, but we do see it in the early stages,” says Dr. Paulson. “It looks like someone who knows right from wrong suddenly becoming uninhibited, and doing things they never would normally do.”
It may also manifest as a person having intense mood swings, becoming easily suspicious of others, or showing heightened aggression or sexual behaviors, per the National Institute on Aging.
But remember, Alzheimer’s disease isn’t common in young people.
So if you’re experiencing little memory flubs before your 60s, it’s unlikely you’re dealing with Alzheimer’s symptoms (although you should always check in with your doctor if you’re concerned).
And if you need help determining the next steps for yourself or a loved one, the Alzheimer’s Association offers a 24/7 helpline, patient and caregiver resources, and a directory of local support groups for people affected by the disease.
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