Beyond memory loss: Understanding Alzheimer’s disease

When you think of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss comes to mind. But while that’s often one of the symptoms, it’s not the only one.

The other symptoms, though, are often less well-known. June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month — offering the perfect opportunity to learn a bit more about the disease and how it shows up.

First, let’s take a look at the numbers.

Alzheimer’s disease: By the numbers

Each year, the Alzheimer’s Association releases a set of statistics related to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Here’s a dive into the 2018 numbers:

  • Approximately 7 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. By 2050, that number is projected to hit 14 million.
  • Every one minute and five seconds, someone else in the United States develops the disease.
  • More than 16 million Americans are providing unpaid care for people who have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
  • That adds up to 4 billion hours of care, valued at more than $230 billion.
  • Alzheimer’s disease or dementia kills more Americans than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined — one in three seniors die of dementia.

Understanding the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

While memory loss is the most obvious symptom of any type of dementia, there are many other symptoms to keep an eye on.

The Alzheimer’s Association has identified 10 early signs of Alzheimer’s disease:

  1. Memory loss that’s enough to disrupt daily life.
    What it’s not: Forgetting someone’s name or where your keys are, but remembering later.
  2. Difficulty planning or solving problems.
    What’s it not: Occasional challenges with balancing a checkbook or following a recipe.
  3. Difficulty completing basic tasks at home or at work.
    What’s it not: Needing help to figure out a piece of technology.
  4. Confusion related to time or place.
    What’s it not: Forgetting what day of the week it is, but remembering it later.
  5. Trouble with visuals or spatial relationships.
    What it’s not: Vision problems caused by diminished eye health.
  6. New difficulties with words in speaking or writing.
    What it’s not: Sometimes not remembering the right word.
  7. Misplacing items often and not knowing how find them.
    What it’s not: Losing something from time to time, but being able to retrace your steps to find the item.
  8. A diminished sense of judgment.
    What’s it not: Making a poor decision every once in a while.
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities.
    What it’s not: Not wanting to spend time with others all the time.
  10. Changes in mood or personality.
    What’s it not: Getting irritated when a routine is disrupted or process isn’t followed.

If you or a loved one are experiencing any of these symptoms — especially if you see a pattern emerging — talk with a doctor. When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, early detection and prompt treatment are important to limit the effects of the disease.

Early detection & Alzheimer’s disease

Today, there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, though research is ongoing. But treatments are available to help those diagnosed with the disease manage the symptoms and maintain a quality of life.

That’s why it’s important to talk with a doctor if you begin experiencing signs of dementia.

There’s not a single test that decisively determines a person has Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, doctors will obtain a thorough medical and family medical history, analyze a person’s mental status and mood, conduct a physical and neurological exam, and run other tests that rule out non-dementia causes of symptoms.

Once Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed, doctors have a number of treatment options at their disposal — including medications to help with memory loss, therapies and medications to help with behavioral changes, and medications to alleviate sleep difficulties. Depending on the severity of the disease, a doctor may also recommend lifestyle habits that can help boost memory and cognitive health, like physical exercise, dietary changes, and brain exercises.

Berneet Kaur, MD is a neurologist with Erlanger Memory and Aging Services. Learn more about Erlanger Memory and Aging Services here.