When does forgetfulness stop being part of simply getting older? These are the signs to watch out for
By the time you’ve read this article, someone in the UK will have developed dementia. Some 225,000 people a year are affected by varying disorders that trigger a loss of brain function. Symptoms include memory loss, confusion and problems with speech and understanding.
‘Dementia’s a variable set of symptoms,’ says Dr Clare Walton, Research Communications Manager for the Alzheimer’s Society. ‘It’s the most feared condition in people over 55.’
There are now 850,000 sufferers in the UK, with numbers set to top one million by 2025. Although reasons for the rise are unclear, it may partly be due to better awareness, leading to increased diagnosis at an earlier stage.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, affecting 62% of cases. Vascular dementia (caused by reduced blood supply to the brain due to diseased blood vessels) affects 17%, mixed (Alzheimer’s/vascular) affects 10% and 11% is caused by rarer forms.
Sadly, there’s no cure yet but drugs are available to help manage symptoms, so it’s vital to spot the warning signs and get an early diagnosis.
Memory Loss That Disrupts Daily Life
One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s, especially in the early stages, is forgetting recently learnt information or important dates or events and repeatedly asking for the same information and relying on reminders (notes, electronic devices or family members) for things you used to handle on your own.
‘These symptoms are an exaggeration of things you might start to see with age-related memory loss,’ says Dr Walton. ‘It’s all about severity and these things happening frequently enough to affect your daily life.’
What’s normal: Occasionally forgetting names or appointments but then remembering them later.
Changes In Mood And Personality
The mood and personalities of people with Alzheimer’s can change. They can become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious and may be easily upset at home, at work, with friends or in places where they are out of their comfort zone.
‘The personality or mood can change in a person with dementia if the front part of the brain [the frontal lobe] is damaged,’ says GP and professor Dr Carolyn Chew-Graham.
Dr Walton adds, ‘Patience and taking the time to try to understand how the person is feeling is one of the best ways to cope with aggressive behaviour.’
What’s normal: Developing specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted.
Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks
People with Alzheimer’s often find it hard to complete daily tasks. Driving to a familiar location, managing a budget at work or remembering the rules of a favourite game may all become difficult.
‘Each person with dementia is different,’ explains Dr Chew-Graham.
‘The symptoms a person has depends on the type of dementia and which part of the brain is damaged. A person may find it hard to make a cup of tea, park a car, get dressed or lock up the house. Some of these problems may put the person at risk.’
What’s normal: Sometimes needing help to use the settings on things like the microwave or to record a TV show.
Challenges In Planning Or Solving Problems
Some people may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. Sufferers may also have trouble following a familiar recipe, have difficulty concentrating and take longer to do things.
‘A sign is the inability to keep organised and know when events are happening,’ says Dr Walton.
What’s normal:Making occasional errors when doing tasks such as balancing figures.
Poor Judgment And Personal Hygiene
People with Alzheimer’s may experience changes in judgment or decision-making, such as giving large amounts of money to cold callers. They may also pay less attention to grooming or hygiene.
‘They may forget to clean their teeth or wash, maybe because they’re confused about what time of day it is,’ says Dr Walton.
What’s normal: Making a bad decision once in a while.
Confusion With Time Or Place
Losing track of dates, seasons and the passage of time are key indicators. Sufferers may have trouble understanding something if it’s not happening immediately. Sometimes they may forget where they are or how they got there.
‘As people get older they may forget things. But if this impacts on their day-to-day living and if the memory loss is associated with other symptoms – such as getting lost, having difficulty finding words or a change in mood or personality – then the person should see their GP,’ advises Dr Chew-Graham.
What’s normal: Getting confused about the day of the week but figuring it out later.
Misplacing Things And Losing The Ability To Retrace Your Steps
A person with Alzheimer’s may put things in unusual places or lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them. ‘Putting the phone in the fridge, the milk in the cupboard…
That kind of behaviour doesn’t happen with normal age-related deterioration,’ says Dr Walton. Sometimes sufferers may accuse others of stealing and this may occur more frequently over time.
What’s normal: Misplacing things occasionally, such as a pair of glasses or the remote control.
Trouble With Reading And Distance
Some people may have difficulty reading, judging distance and determining colour or contrast. ‘People with dementia are prone to falling because they can’t see things such as changes in colour that determine depth,’ says Dr Walton. Sufferers may also pass a mirror and think someone else is in the room, not recognising their own reflection.
What’s normal: Vision changes related to cataracts or macular degeneration.
What To Do If You’re Worried
Early diagnosis provides the best chance for treatment, as well as financial, practical and emotional support and future planning.
1. If you notice any of the above warning signs, consult your GP. They can refer you to a memory clinic or specialist for tests.
2. Dementia assessments may include conversations, a physical examination, memory tests and/or brain scans.
3. For more information and support, call the National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 1122 or visit alzheimers.org.uk
4. To join Alzheimer’s Research UK’s dementia research project, call 0300 111 5111 or log on to joindementiaresearch.nihr.ac.uk