This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.
January is Alzheimer's Awareness Month in Canada. According to the Alzheimer's Association, almost 750,000 Canadians are living with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia. Alzheimer's is a brain disease that causes significant problems with memory and thinking. Some symptoms of Alzheimer's are widely known, such as forgetfulness, but the following Alzheimer's symptoms may surprise you.
Although these symptoms may be warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, they may also be harmless or signs of another condition. If you have any concerns about yourself or a loved one, contact your doctor for guidance.
1. Putting things in unusual places
You may have experienced occasionally zoning out while putting something away, later finding it in an unusual place — such as accidentally putting the milk in the cupboard instead of the fridge. This kind of thing happens frequently among people with Alzheimer's disease. They may put their car keys in the microwave or the TV remote in their purse. The biggest indication that this behaviour may be a sign of Alzheimer's rather than simple forgetfulness is when it happens with escalating frequency and when belongings are found in increasingly unusual places.
Falling is a common risk as you age, but frequently tripping, falling and having other accidents can be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. A study in the medical journal Frontiers in Neuroscience found that people who developed Alzheimer's disease had more falls and accidents in the years before their diagnosis than people who didn't develop Alzheimer's. Falls are also more common after Alzheimer's disease has been diagnosed. This might be due to certain factors associated with Alzheimer's, such as changes in visual perception, confusion and changes in balance.
3. Eating strange objects
Pica is a type of eating disorder that causes someone to eat items that aren't food. While it primarily occurs in young children and pregnant women, it's also associated with dementia, which is a symptom of Alzheimer's disease. Pica in people with dementia may be caused by an obsessive-compulsive drive to relieve anxiety. It can also happen with a person with Alzheimer's forgets what to do with an object. For instance, they may know they sat down to eat, so they try to eat their napkin, not remembering what else it should be used for.
4. Personality change
No one is at their best 100 per cent of the time, but a significant personality change could be a sign of Alzheimer's disease. If your normally sweet and mild-mannered mom has suddenly become rude, loud and sarcastic, it may be a cause for concern. People with Alzheimer's disease may become agitated or aggressive for many reasons, including:
Lack of sleep
Change in routine
The loss of inhibition associated with brain damage caused by Alzheimer's can also cause people to behave in ways they wouldn't have before. They may make rude or inappropriate comments or be inappropriately sexual.
5. Using poor judgment
Wearing shorts and flip-flops in freezing weather displays the type of poor judgment that can be associated with Alzheimer's disease. Problems with decision-making may show up even before the memory loss that's characteristic of dementia. People with Alzheimer's may easily fall for scams and have trouble managing their money. They may decide they don't need to bathe and skip combing their hair when they were previously meticulous about personal hygiene. According to a review published in Cortex, uncharacteristic criminal behaviour, such as shoplifting, can be an early sign of dementia.
6. Not making sense
Alzheimer's disease affects how people experience and understand the world, causing them to sense time and sensory inputs differently. Your brain takes the inputs from your senses and processes them. People with Alzheimer's may have damage to parts of their brain that causes them to misinterpret sensory information. They may not be able to recognize familiar people or objects. For instance, they may think their wallet is a cell phone.
Alzheimer's can also cause people to become confused about time. People with dementia may experience time-shifting, which is the belief that they're living in an earlier time in their lives. They may not recognize friends and family because they remember them looking much younger. Alzheimer's disease affects short-term memory first, so people may use older memories to provide context to their current experiences. Both misinterpreting sensory information and time-shifting can cause people with Alzheimer's to say things that don't make sense, although their perceptions are real to them.
Delusions and paranoia are common symptoms of dementia. They usually get worse as the disease progresses. People with Alzheimer's may think that others are stealing from them — often in response to being unable to find something. Other frequent delusions include the belief that people are conspiring against them and that their home is not their real home. They may believe that everyone is trying to trick them or harm them.
Paranoia and delusions can be a result of missing information or memories. People with Alzheimer's may draw false conclusions because they lack relevant memories. Delusions are different from hallucinations in that delusions are false beliefs, whereas hallucinations involve seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling or smelling something that isn't there.
8. Difficulty finding the right word
That tip-of-your-tongue feeling that occurs when you're trying to find the right word happens to almost everyone. As with other symptoms of Alzheimer's, this experience can be normal or it can be an early sign of dementia. Alzheimer's can destroy parts of the brain associated with language, which can cause aphasia. Aphasia is difficulty with language, particularly speaking and understanding language. For someone in the early stages of Alzheimer's, this may present as losing track of a conversation or having trouble finding the words to express themself. In the later stages of the disease, all communication may be nonverbal.
Living with Alzheimer's disease
If you think you or a loved one may have symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, talk to your family doctor. Although there's no cure for Alzheimer's, there are treatments that can slow its progression and improve your quality of life. There are current medications that can help, and there's a lot of research into new medicines that may be available in the next 10 years. Counselling and support groups can also help people with Alzheimer's and their family members. Early detection and treatment will help you develop coping mechanisms to decrease the severity of symptoms.