Ocskay Mark/ShutterstockAbout 50 million people live with dementia worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. What makes this epidemic even scarier is that despite plenty of theories about dementia, no one really knows what causes it. Alzheimer’s is the most common type—according to the Alzheimer’s Association, it accounts for up to 80 percent of cases—including my mother’s. In a twist that’s hard to fathom, my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease was not diagnosed until she had reached the final stages. Part of this was due to her age; she’s only 68. A mere 5 percent of Alzheimer’s patients experience early onset, which is defined as dementia that strikes before age 65. I never suspected my mother was one of them, and that the disease had taken root years before our family noticed it.
(Learn more about the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s.)
After speaking with doctors and reading up on dementia, I now realize there were some early signs that my mother’s mind was in trouble. But most of the symptoms were things we chalked up to age or and dismissed as goofy parts of her personality. Little annoyances we brushed off. Looking back, these seem to have been my mother’s earliest and most deceptive Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Constantly misplacing her keys and cell phone. It was a running joke in our family, but in the context of dementia, this kind of chronic absent-mindedness was probably more than a bad habit. Misplacing things is one of the earliest signs of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Of course, everyone loses their phone, keys, or other small items from time to time, but when the frequency is almost daily, it could be a sign of a bigger problem.
Asking for the same information repeatedly. If I were coming to visit my mother in a week, I’d have to field the same questions daily leading up to my trip. One of them would inevitably be, “Which train are you taking?” This unrelenting line of questioning was frustrating, of course, but it should have been alarming. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, chronic forgetfulness and asking for the same information over and over is a warning sign. Forgetting conversations is another, according to Helpguide.org. Requiring the same information a few times can be attributed to normal aging, but when the information won’t stick on a daily basis, it could be more serious.
Avoiding social interactions. My mother has been outgoing her entire life and has numerous close friends. When she moved out of state with my father 10 years ago, she began avoiding social situations, though, especially if it meant meeting new people. As we later learned, social isolation is an early sign of dementia.
Don’t miss these 10 treatable causes of dementia.
Never getting the lay of the land. When my mother moved from the place she’d lived her whole life to the new town, she never quite figured out how to get around—and she loved to be out and about. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, having trouble driving to a familiar location is an early symptom of dementia. If my mother’s disease had taken root around the time she relocated, it makes sense that she would have trouble retaining this new information.
Unexplained weight loss. My mother had always been a petite woman. But in the past handful of years, she seemed to keep shrinking. By the time she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she weighed less than 100 pounds. According to a report published by the American Academy of Neurology in 2009, “Women who will go on to develop dementia begin to lose weight at least ten years before diagnosis.” Another report, in 2010, linked unintended weight loss with Alzheimer’s—and, specifically, with the rapid progression of the disease. My mother has cycled through the last three stages of Alzheimer’s in about two years.
If you suspect a loved one might be experiencing the early signs of dementia, experts recommend trying to persuade that person to see a doctor right away. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, medications and treatments are available to slow the progression of the disease when addressed early.