Normal aging leads to changes in the brain, especially in regards to memory and learning. These changes can make it difficult for some individuals to learn new things or recall some information, like a recent acquaintance’s name. Some neurons may be damaged by molecules known as free radicals, while others simply shrink over time. Conditions like high blood pressure can damage neurons as well.
With Alzheimer’s disease, the damage is more severe, ultimately affecting larger regions of the brain. The Alzheimer’s Association identified ten common signs of Alzheimer’s to help you learn if you should be concerned about a loved one’s condition. In this series of monthly blog posts, we’ll break down two of these signs at a time to help you recognize if your loved one is displaying normal signs of aging, or if there could be something more serious going on.
Signs of Alzheimer’s: Disruptive Memory Loss
Probably the most common of the Alzheimer’s symptoms is memory loss. However, while many elders may experience some loss of memory as they grow older, if it is beginning to disrupt their everyday lives in a manner of ways, it could be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease.
There are four different memory systems in our brains – episodic, semantic, procedural, and working. Alzheimer’s disease affects three out of the four:
- Episodic: The hippocampus, located in the frontal emporal lobe, allows us to learn new information and remember recent events. Alzheimer’s disease damages the hippocampus, leading to trouble recalling certain things that may have just occurred.
- Semantic: This system also involves the frontal temporal lobes and provides the ability to retain general knowledge or facts, including the ability to recognize and name objects. It’s common for those with Alzheimer’s to have difficulty naming everyday objects in category, like kitchen utensils. This is a situation known as agnosia.
- Working: The prefrontal cortex of our brains allows us to pay attention, focus, concentrate and retain information we just learned. Alzheimer’s disease causes a person to have trouble completing or focusing on a task at hand.
- Procedural: The cerebellum in our brain helps us learn unconscious skills, like typing. This system is generally not damaged by Alzheimer’s disease, or it is one of the last to detoriate. This is why those living with dementia are still capable of learning new things with enough repetition.
If you notice your loved one is struggling to remember recent events, information, appointments, your name, or keeps asking you for help with reminders, this type of memory loss could be a sign of Alzheimer’s.
Signs of Alzheimer’s: Changes in Personality and Mood
Everyone experiences mood swings from time to time. We may be happy and excited one minute, and then hear some news that brings us down. Those with Alzheimer’s disease may be more expressive with their emotions due to the deterioration of their brains’ ‘filtration’ systems. In other words, as the brain changes, people may become less inhibited.
While most people associate memory loss with Alzheimer’s disease, changes in personality and mood tend to go hand in hand with changes in memory. In fact, some studies indicate that sharp changes in personality and mood may actually precede the memory and cognition problems of Alzheimer’s.
There’s a bit of conflicting evidence on whether memory loss influences personality and mood changes that occur in individuals with Alzheimer’s, or whether the personality changes come first. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, your loved one may become increasingly irritable, anxious or depressed. These changes in personality may evolve further in the mid-to-late stages of Alzheimer’s, when loved ones become more emotionally expressive, have more moments of upset, or may become distrusting of others.
Some of the most common personality or mood changes include:
- Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed or social withdrawal
- Indifference or lack of adherence to traditional rules of social interactions with others
- Paranoia or delusional thinking
- Becoming easily upset or anxious outside of comfort zones
Recognizing the signs of Alzheimer’s is key to an early diagnosis and treatments that may improve quality of life. Stay tuned for our next topic in this series!
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