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6 Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer's Disease

June 10, 2024

A mature woman discusses memory loss with her provider.

Older people often have slower recall of words or names and may even forget important dates and appointments. But is the memory loss age-related or something more? Could it be the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease?

Keerti Sharma, MD, a geriatric medicine doctor with Atlantic Health System, says memory delay is a part of normal aging, but memory loss is not. “There is a reason; it could be Alzheimer’s or something less permanent and reversible,” says Dr. Sharma.

Keep reading to learn the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease and how early detection can make a difference.

What is Alzheimer’s Disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative disease that causes nerve cell damage in the brain, negatively affecting your memory and cognition (ability to understand, plan, recall and recognize). It’s typically diagnosed in people over the age of 65, and most commonly after 75.

Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia — the umbrella term that describes symptoms of cognitive (thinking, reasoning, remembering and learning) decline significant enough to interfere with your daily life.

Stages of Alzheimer’s Disease

Doctors used to think of Alzheimer’s in terms of three stages: mild, moderate, severe. However, as Dr. Sharma explains, “With time and an improved understanding of the disease, the terminology has evolved.”

Now, doctors use the Functional Assessment Staging Tool (FAST) Scale to identify the seven stages of Alzheimer’s, which range from normal aging/no deficits to severe dementia/fully dependent on others (with degrees of early, mild and moderate decline in between).

As a progressive disease, Alzheimer’s develops over years (7-14 on average). How quickly or slowly varies from person to person. While there are no guarantees, there is some predictability.

“If the disease moves slowly through the earlier stages, it’s most likely that it will continue to progress slowly in the later stages,” says Dr. Sharma.

Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s

Symptoms vary from person to person, but a few early warning signs or red flags to watch for include:

  • Unusual or “out of the norm” forgetfulness (especially if you’re usually “the one who never forgets”), including missing appointments, important dates and people’s names.
  • Repeating yourself in the same conversation.
  • A new inability to follow instructions (such as a recipe).
  • Difficulty following conversations or television shows (can’t stay focused or follow the storyline).
  • Disorientation or confusion about where you are.
  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings and having difficulty driving safely.

When to See a Doctor

If you’re over 65 and any of the early warning signs begin to interfere with your ability to function on a day-to-day basis, it’s time to get a professional evaluation — especially if your symptoms are sudden or persistent.

“Even if it’s not Alzheimer’s, other conditions may be at play that need addressing,” warns Dr. Sharma. “Symptoms may point to depression or side effects from medication. Symptoms can even signal a stroke, so it’s better not to wait. Get evaluated by a doctor.”

How is Alzheimer’s Diagnosed?

It starts by understanding your symptoms. Your doctor will talk to you about the types of changes you’re experiencing, the timeline of those changes and how it’s affecting your day-to-day activities and independence. Your doctor will also review all prescribed and over-the-counter medications and supplements you’re taking that may affect cognition.

To confirm an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, any combination of diagnostic testing may be ordered, including:

  • Cognitive and neuropsychological tests to check short and long-term memory, executive functioning, and attention, language, visuospatial and problem-solving skills.
  • Blood tests to look for disease markers and to rule out reversible causes of the symptoms.
  • Brain scans such as brain CT, MRI and PET scans to evaluate changes in brain matter and to rule out bleeds, stroke, increased pressure and tumors.

Early Detection Can Make a Difference

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but early detection can make a difference in getting the disease under control.

New medications and treatment therapies can alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of the disease, improving your quality of life and allowing you to live independently longer. Early detection also gives you and your family time to plan for the future and make arrangements for full-time care when needed.

“Making healthy lifestyle choices, especially regular physical exercise, can help reduce the risk of developing dementia and slow the progression of cognitive decline,” says Dr. Sharma. “But if you do start to experience symptoms, getting a medical evaluation early can be the key to living a longer, healthier life.”

  • Senior Health
  • Brain Health