Diagnosing Alzheimer’s: Symptoms vs Normal Aging Behavior

People often associate Alzheimer’s with a memory disease and although the destruction Alzheimer’s causes has largely to due with memory, it is a disease of the brain and affects all cognitive functions. Alzheimer’s is known as a disease that mainly affect older adults and seniors and therefore, detection is sometimes difficult. Many Alzheimer’s symptoms closely resemble the natural signs of aging. So how does one tell what is normal and what is a warning sign of something much larger?

The National Institute on Aging identifies seven Alzheimer’s warning signs that were originally published by The Suncoast Gerontology Center, University of South Florida.  They are

1. Asking the same question over and over again.

2. Repeating the same story, word for word, again and again.

3. Forgetting how to cook, or how to make repairs, or how to play cards — activities that were previously done with ease and regularity.

4. Losing one’s ability to pay bills or balance one’s checkbook.

5. Getting lost in familiar surroundings, or misplacing household objects.

6. Neglecting to bathe, or wearing the same clothes over and over again, while insisting that they have taken a bath or that their clothes are still clean.

7. Relying on someone else, such as a spouse, to make decisions or answer questions they previously would have handled themselves.

The consistency and severity of symptoms differentiates Alzheimer’s from normal aging behavior.  For example, forgetting names and certain commitments is completely normal for anyone of any age but suddenly forgetting what has just been learned or continuing to forget small things could be one of the first Alzheimer’s symptoms. This forgetfulness includes simple words and the possibility of the person making up their own words, making it hard for other people to understand what they are trying to say.

People will sometimes become confused for a short time about what day of the week it is or where they are going while they are driving. However, people who are showing signs of Alzheimer’s will often not know what day, time, or even year it is. They can also easily become confused and disoriented in their own neighborhood and become lost.

Because Alzheimer’s is a disease that affects rational thinking, people suffering from the disease will often make seemingly odd decisions because they simply no longer have the capacity for good judgment. While we all get caught in a bad choice every now and then, people with Alzheimer’s are continually going out in their pajamas, or dropping all of their cash into a homeless person’s cup. Because small decisions will be difficult, any capacity for complex thought is also gone. This can become as severe as the patient not understanding what numbers are or how they are used.

A once active person may become extremely lethargic and seem too tired to do anything at all. Because Alzheimer’s can also be closely related to depression and because many of the Alzheimer’s symptoms also resemble symptoms of depression, they can often display extreme mood swings as well as a complete change in personality. Although every person changes as they grow, a person with Alzheimer’s may suddenly change from being completely independent to no longer being able to be alone.

When deciding whether behavior is normal or perhaps an Alzheimer’s symptom, it’s important to understand the line between natural aging and behavior and a more serious condition.  Appropriate medical personnel need to be consulted to conduct appropriate testing and make a differential diagnosis when symptoms suggest a problem may be developing.