Plain old aging
Kinga/ShutterstockFirst things first: There's a big difference between the brain changes of normal aging and the cognitive disruptions of diseases like Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. (These are the top 3 types of dementia.) "In a normal, healthy brain, the major thing that happens as we get older is our neurons slow down a bit," says Michael R. Wasserman, MD, board member of the American Geriatrics Society's Health in Aging Foundation. Such slowing could mean taking a bit longer to process or react to new information. But Dr. Wasserman is quick to add two crucial points. One: Everyone is different. "I've met plenty of 100 year olds who are sharp as a tack." And two: Cognitive problems that make it harder to get through your day, such as the following signs and symptoms, shouldn't be accepted as part of aging; they should be taken as a signal to see your doctor.
Short-term memory loss
Katya-Shut/ShutterstockWhen it comes to disorders of the older brain, Alzheimer's disease is a biggie, and it has a pretty clear early warning sign. "The area of the brain Alzheimer's affects most is short-term memory," says Dr. Wasserman. "So the major early symptom of the disease is short-term memory loss—that's what everyone notices." This could include everything from forgetting the day's events to an inability to recall instructions. (Here are more of the early signs of Alzheimer's to watch out for.) Repeating questions or forgetting recent conversations are also among the indicators, says David M. Holtzman, MD, Professor and Chairman, Department of Neurology, Washington University in St. Louis. "This can be caused by dysfunction in the medial temporal lobe, frequently among the first signs of Alzheimer's disease as well as some other brain disorders," he explains. Try these smart strategies for boosting memory.
Long-term memory loss
Ruslan Guzov/ShutterstockIf your memory problems extend to things that happened years or decades in the past, it's possible you might be dealing with a different type of dementia, says Dr. Wasserman. "For people with Alzheimer's, long-term memory tends to hold out, but with other forms of dementia you may have more long-term memory issues." Multi-infarct dementia—caused by multiple strokes, which interrupt blood supply resulting in damaged brain tissue—is probably the best example because the strokes may hit part of brain responsible for long-term memory, he explains. Find out silent symptoms you might be having a stroke.
Trouble finding words
Dean Drobot/ShutterstockEven a healthy 40-year-old can catch herself having trouble coming up with someone's name. (Here are some tricks to remember names better.) But later in life, difficulty remembering vocabulary basics—like words for often-used items from "toaster" to "steering wheel"—could be a sign of cognitive problems. "This is caused by difficulty in the parts of the brain that control language, usually in the left temporal or parietal lobe, and it can also be a first sign of Alzheimer's disease, other neurodegenerative disorders, a structural brain lesion or stroke-related damage," Dr. Holtzman explains.
Botching the checkbook
welcomia/ShutterstockAnother early sign of Alzheimer's could be problems with executive function, which lives in a brain region called the prefrontal cortex. "Executive function is higher level thinking," says Dr. Wasserman. "So if someone is having trouble managing the checkbook or reasoning through decisions, those are the sorts of things you'll see in the earlier stages of Alzheimer's." Try these brain exercises to get smarter.
Tyler Olson/ShutterstockPeople with dementia may not realize they're having trouble behind the wheel, but family and friends could observe potential problems, says the National Institute on Aging (NIA). While a number of physical factors can contribute to an older adult's declining ability to drive—from joint stiffness to vision problems—Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia can also cause on-the-road issues by impacting memory and decision-making skills. If an older adult is showing signs of driving problems, such as forgetting how to find familiar places, loved ones should contact their doctor to determine if it's no longer safe to be behind the wheel, the NIA urges. (These are some signs it's time for your loved one to stop driving.)
Mood and personality changes
Pressmaster/ShutterstockFeeling down or even apathetic could also be cause for concern. "Becoming more passive or developing a new depression in an elderly person can be additional signs of cognitive disorders," explains Dr. Holtzman. "This could be caused by changes in the frontal lobe, amygdala and other structures due to Alzheimer's disease or other brain conditions." (Here's how negative thoughts could be aging you, too.)
Bothersome balance issues
Dusan Petkovic/ShutterstockWhen it comes to other types of dementia, some physical symptoms may also flare up. With multi-infarct dementia, for example, a disruption in mental function may be accompanied by physical clues such as loss of balance. Lewy body dementia, a progressive condition in which abnormal protein deposits accumulate in the brain, is often accompanied by some Parkinson's disease-like characteristics, adds Dr. Wasserman. "So people may have some rigidity and tremor in the extremities or some hallucinations, especially auditory hallucinations," he explains. (Here are some symptoms of Parkinson's disease that shouldn't be ignored.)
Lost sense of smell
MJTH/ShutterstockNot only could a decline in your ability to smell be an early sign of the degenerative disorder Parkinson's disease, according to DoctorOz.com, the area of your brain responsible for smell is also affected by Alzheimer's. Indeed, a pair of 2016 studies suggested physicians may be able to screen patients for Alzheimer's by testing their ability to identify common scents, like coffee, smoke and raspberries, according to National Public Radio. (This is the difference between Alzheimer's and dementia.)
wavebreakmedia/ShutterstockWhile there can be many different causes of hearing loss—from infection to a perforated eardrum—Alzheimer's disease may be one of them, says DoctorOz.com. The plaques in the brain associated with this condition could interfere with the hearing center's ability to function, according to the site. (Here are some common causes of hearing loss.)