Why early detection matters
mrmohock/ShutterstockWith grim prognoses and very limited treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, early detection isn’t particularly advantageous. (These 36 habits reduce your risk of Alzheimer's.) But that may be changing—fast. One of the hottest areas of Alzheimer's research involves treating people in the very earliest stages of the disease with drugs that decrease the production of amyloid beta (proteins that bunch together to form damaging plaques in the brain). Experts believe that people begin to develop amyloid plaques in their brains at least 10 years before they develop any obvious symptoms of dementia. This is how memory loss in Alzheimer's patients could soon be reversed.
Reisa Sperling, MD, director of the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston is leading a new clinical trial, called the A4 study, which will evaluate patients with evidence of Alzheimer’s damage in the brain but who still have normal thinking and memory function. The trial will randomly assign groups to receive medication, and researchers will determine over three years whether the drugs affected the patients’ memory or levels of amyloid. “When a person already has a lot of memory trouble, they already have significant neuron loss,” says Dr. Sperling. “We need to find and treat people much earlier.” Here's what to watch for.
Worrying about your memory
YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/ShutterstockA number of studies presented at an Alzheimer’s Association conference last year found that people who were concerned about their own memory and thinking were in fact more likely to have signs of Alzheimer’s plaques in their brain, and develop dementia symptoms later. “People should trust what they observe about themselves,” Rebecca Amariglio, PhD, a Harvard neuropsychologist, told USA Today. It’s common with a number of health conditions—such as arthritis, or Parkinson’s disease—for people to feel something isn’t right before others observe it, Frank Jessen, a researcher at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, told the New York Times. Learn more about how to tell if your memory loss is an early sign of Alzheimer's.
Spotty recollection of recent important events
Canon Boy/ShutterstockForgetting a key conversation with a family member or a big news story from earlier in the week (like a natural disaster such as a hurricane) is concerning—especially if people can’t remember they forgot it. “If you remember that you forgot something, like your keys, that means your brain is still trying to access that information,” says Dr. Sperling. Not being able to remember the name of an actor in a movie—but recalling it later that night or the next day—is probably not a sign of Alzheimer’s disease. (During later stages, use these 11 ways to maintain an emotional connection with someone with Alzheimer's.)
Trouble managing finances
Sergey Dobrydnev/ShutterstockNot being able to keep track of paying bills, having difficulty transferring money among accounts, or having problems maintaining an adequate balance to cover payments can all be early red flags for Alzheimer’s, several studies show. “When I talk to patients in my office, I always ask who pays the bills,” Dr. Sperling says. “If I hear that there’s been a change—say the wife did all the bill paying, but her husband has recently taken over, that’s a concerning find.” Accounting troubles can also set a person up for fraud—these are the signs of elder financial abuse to watch out for.
Getting lost while driving
Toa55/ShutterstockThis is especially relevant if someone gets confused or disoriented in a place where they’ve driven many times—like if they had to take a slightly different route home from a store, but had trouble getting back to a familiar destination. Find out the real difference between dementia and Alzheimer's.
Skipping social events
wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock“We’ve seen that difficulty following conversations, particularly in a group, can be an early sign of Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Sperling. (These are the habits of people who look and act younger than their age.) She’ll hear patients with early signs of Alzheimer's report that they don’t like to go out to lunch as much with their friends as they used to because they feel they’re not picking up the jokes or conversation.
Losing interest in favorite hobbies
Another potential early signal of Alzheimer’s is when people start to skip their favorite pastimes—a golfer or a bridge player who foregoes his weekly game, for example. “Alzheimer’s-related brain changes can cause apathy, which makes people lose motivation,” says Dr. Sperling. These symptoms may mimic depression. “If a patient has never had depression before or has no obvious reason for being depressed, such as grief over the loss of a loved one, that’s concerning,” she adds. Find out what new research says could be the earliest sign of Alzheimer's.
An inability to plan
People in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease have changes in their ability to plan or multitask—a brain skill known as executive function. It could be someone who annually gets the holiday parties or family vacations together who begins to have trouble organizing, or even has trouble with day to day schedules.
cliplab.pro/ShutterstockNighttime tossing and turning that leaves you exhausted the next morning could be a sign of more than stress. A study in the journal Neurology asked adults considered at risk for Alzheimer's—but who didn't have symptoms—about their sleep habits. Those who reported worse sleep problems and trouble falling asleep, and more daytime tiredness had more markers for Alzheimer's disease in their spinal fluid than those who said they slept fine. The scientists aren't sure if poor sleep raises risk for Alzheimer's or if sleep problems are a symptom brought on by the condition, but check with your doctor if your sleepless nights are paired with lapses in memory. On the flip side, this one sleeping habit could ward off Alzheimer's.
Impact Photography/ShutterstockStudies have indicated that depression could be one of the early signs of Alzheimer's, but researchers weren't sure whether depression was a risk factor or a result of the condition. One five-year study in the American Journal of Psychiatry could shed some light, though. The researchers found more amyloid beta—the protein that builds the plaques found in brains of people with Alzheimer's—in cognitively healthy adults who had increasing anxiety. In fact, anxiety was an even stronger predictor of plaques than other depression symptoms such as apathy or a decrease in life satisfaction. The researchers conclude that heightened anxiety could be one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer's because it shows up even before memory loss. Still, learn why Alzheimer's patients should avoid antidepressants.