Can’t tell Times Square from Timbuktu? Your poor sense of direction could be a bigger issue than you originally thought. In fact, struggling to create a mental map in your mind might be an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research from Washington University in St. Louis. Keep an eye out for more of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s.
Three groups of participants participated in the study: healthy people, adults with early-stage Alzheimer’s, and people with preclinical disease. Although those with preclinical disease don’t show any symptoms yet, they have lower levels of a certain biomarker, which can be a sign of the disease before diagnosis. Here are more signs that “forgetfulness” is actually Alzheimer’s.
A virtual computer maze tested the spatial navigational skills of all three groups. As the researchers anticipated, the participants with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease received a lower score than the healthy group did. However, those with preclinical Alzheimer’s performed poorly, too. That could mean that difficulty using a map (or other lack of navigational skills) might be a symptom of the disease that shows up decades or more before a patient is diagnosed.
“Spatial navigation abilities, particularly the ability to form a mental map of the environment, are associated with a brain structure called the hippocampus,” said study author Denise Head, PhD. “Changes to this structure seem to occur before individuals are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.”
If you can’t live without your GPS, though, you can rest easy. Further research is needed before researchers can confidently say whether everyone with navigational challenges will go on to develop Alzheimer’s. In the meantime, you can take up these 36 daily habits to prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
But you should still discuss these symptoms with your doctor, especially if they’re new and you’re under the age of 50, says study coauthor John Morris, MD, director of the Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University School of Medicine. Your doctor may recommend a few neuro-imaging tests to evaluate your brain’s structure and functioning. Thankfully, the future in this field looks bright; new technology could soon reverse memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients.