I’ve noticed Mom is increasingly forgetful. Is this just normal aging? How do I know if Mom has Alzheimer’s? And, what’s the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia?
These are common questions and concerns for people with aging parents. Younger people even wonder if memory slips might be signs of future Alzheimer’s. Our geriatric experts will help clear up definitions, myths, and all your questions about Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease is “an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills” (National Institute on Aging). It is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, who first discovered the plaques and tangles characteristic of the disease in the brain tissue of a deceased patient.
Alzheimer’s is one type of dementia. Other types include Lewy Body dementia, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and dementia related to diseases like Parkinson’s. Dementia is a term for the symptoms and behaviors, while Alzheimer’s and the others are the specific diagnosis.
Alzheimer’s Related Myths and Misconceptions
- “My Mom doesn’t have Alzheimer’s. It’s just a little bit of dementia.” She may not have Alzheimer’s, but this statement typically results from a confusion in terms. Alzheimer’s is just a type of dementia and has various stages. Dementia is not a more mild form or “normal” part of aging. This often indicates the family has noticed signs, but a medical professional hasn't given a diagnosis.
- “It’s just old age.” Dementia is a normal part of aging. Alzheimer’s and these other causes of dementia are diseases, not normal brain aging. We will share how to distinguish normal aging from dementia below. However, this myth has some basis in reality since occurrence increases with age (i.e. age is a “risk factor”). Additionally, there are some reversible conditions that cause similar symptoms to Alzheimer's so it’s important to get a diagnostic workup.
Some other common misconceptions revolve around causes, prevention and cures. You can read more from the Alzheimer’s Association. As far as prevention goes, there’s little proof for specific vitamins or supplements. But, overall nervous system/cardiovascular health is important, so keep your brain healthy with a balanced diet and exercise. We also researched “The Best Brain Boosting Hobbies”. Heredity does play a role, but only a small percentage is familial Alzheimer’s. So, it is not automatically true that you will develop the disease if your loved one had it.
Signs of Alzheimer’s (vs. Normal Aging)
1. Memory loss that is disruptive in daily life
This includes missing appointments, asking repeated information, forgetting tasks just done or what happened earlier in the day. It is normal to occasionally forget an appointment or name.
2. Difficulty completing familiar tasks
The person with Alzheimer’s starts to have trouble managing normal household and self-care tasks due to forgetfulness and processing challenges. On the other hand, it’s not unusual to have difficulty figuring out the remote or working a new appliance.
3. Problems in problem-solving and planning
Complex thinking involving steps becomes disrupted by this disease, making this an area you might notice first. Mom can’t follow a recipe or a set of instructions. You find out her finances are a mess and see she’s unable to follow the process of bill paying anymore. This doesn’t mean we all don’t occasionally miscalculate something or make some errors with bills.
4. Disorientation to time or place
Obvious signs include forgetting where she is or how she got there. Especially when retired, we may not know the date at first but a person with Alzheimer’s might be confused about the season or year or overall timeframes.
5. Visual-spatial difficulties
Alzheimer’s can cause difficulty judging distance or color/contrast. Driving problems and falls often result. Of course, this can also be caused by age or disease-related eyesight issues, which should always be checked.
6. Misplacing items and difficulty retracing steps.
We all do this from time to time but it becomes a pattern with Alzheimer’s and the person can’t retrace their steps due to memory deficits. They also tend to misplace things in strange places and forget where things “belong”.
7. Difficulty with words
The person might stumble over common words, or become withdrawn in conversation/let others speak for him or her. They may call things by the wrong name or simply stop in mid-conversation. They tend to repeat themselves, particularly asking questions for reassurance. We all have moments where we can’t think of words, but it doesn’t stop our conversational fluidity or basic writing abilities.
8. Poor judgment
This is another sign of deficits in higher level thinking, or executive functioning. Many of us make poor decisions, but this symptom becomes obvious when your parent’s behavior is unusual for them.
Mom stops going to her normal activities or socializing with lifelong friends. She might be having trouble keeping up or be embarrassed by lapses. It’s also quite possible she’s having difficulty making and remembering plans. Again, it is the change of pattern that indicates this is more than life’s ups and downs (though this can also be a sign of depression).
10. Changes in personality and mood
The person may become suspicious, angry, fearful or anxious. Again, these may also be symptoms of depression. Learn more: Signs and Symptoms of Depression in the Elderly and Myths about Elderly Depression.
*Adopted from the Alzheimer’s Association
Getting a Diagnosis
If you notice some of the symptoms above, it’s time to get Mom in to see a specialist. This is essential because reversible (treatable!) causes can mimic Alzheimer’s. For example, Mom could be suffering from a vitamin deficiency, vision or hearing problems, medication side effects or depression.
The doctor will conduct tests to assess memory impairment, cognitive and functional abilities, and behavior changes. The workup will include taking a history and performing tests to rule out other possible causes of impairment. In recent years, understanding of the disease and diagnostic testing has become much more sophisticated. Though currently there is no cure and treatments cannot arrest the disease, researchers are making great strides.
After the Alzheimer’s Diagnosis: Planning
Understanding that Mom has Alzheimer’s is also important for planning purposes. Because this is a progressive disease, your family needs to be prepared for what lies ahead. Some key to do’s:
- Advanced care planning: execute legal documents such as a healthcare surrogate designation, durable power of attorney and living will. Make sure providers and family members have copies accessible. Discuss wishes and different scenarios.
- Make sure estate planning is up-to-date.
- Organize paperwork and financial records. Simplify finances where possible and make plans for oversight since handling finances often becomes tricky.
- Medical coordination: organize medical records, centralize contact information for providers and stay on top of preventative care. Consider attending appointments with your loved one or hiring a care manager to do so. Staying as healthy as possible can keep Mom independent longer. A medical crisis usually exacerbates cognitive issues.
- Meet with a care manager for a comprehensive assessment. If you feel overwhelmed, we’d suggest this as the first step. The care manager can outline the priorities and help you complete tasks. They can even recommend help for the areas above, pull together medical records, etc. The assessment will also include a home evaluation so you can ensure the environment is safe.
- Hire some help to keep an eye on things if your loved one lives alone. A caregiver can do light housekeeping, prepare healthy meals, keep your loved one on a routine, provide medication reminders and more.
- Bonus: Join the Caregivers Community on Facebook for support, tips and conversation with others who understand.
Concerns about memory loss? New Alzheimer's diagnosis? Trying to figure out what steps to take? Worn out with caregiving?
Consult with one of our specialists for help at any stage.