When the average person thinks of dementia, generally Alzheimer’s disease comes to mind. At the same time, the person will likely think of memory loss. Both of these conclusions are understandable since Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and memory issues are often, though not always, the first symptom of that disease.
Surprising then, to many people, is the fact that there may be earlier indicators of potential Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia than frequent memory lapses.
If we feel that dementia may be in our future or that of our loved one, what other indications of cognitive change should we watch for?
Slow walking can be an early indicator of AD. Researchers led by Natalia del Campo, PhD, of the Gerontopole and the Center of Excellence in Neurodegeneration of Toulouse, in France, found a connection between the amyloid plaque buildup that is often associated with Alzheimer’s disease and the slowing of a person’s walk. While this was done with people already showing other signs that may point to Alzheimer’s, a study done as far back as 2012 discovered that changes in gait could be found in subjects who had yet to show any signs of dementia. The researchers suggested that a primary physician who sees the person regularly could spot changes in gait. While not a diagnostic test, slowed walking caused by cognitive changes could indicate that further testing is needed.
Changes in what we find humorous can be a clue. Researchers from University College London (UCL) in the UK found that people whose sense of humor became darker with age were more likely to have behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (FTD), which is a type of the broader form of dementia called frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Changes in behavior can be indicators of both types of (FTD), as well as other types of dementia, but changes in sense of humor generally began years before the onset of this variant of FTD. A slightly different but related sign could be the inability to recognize sarcasm.
Eye exams may show early indications of Alzheimer’s disease when the optometrist or ophthalmologist is trained to spot these changes. Researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that the amount of beta amyloid protein in the brain closely corresponded to the amount of beta amyloid protein in the retina of the eye. It follows that if your eye exam shows abnormal amyloid build up you should see a neurologist. Eye exams also give doctors a good look at your blood vessel health, so they can be helpful in the early diagnosis of diabetes as well as heart issues.
Change is the key when looking for dementia symptoms. Someone who could never balance a checkbook shouldn’t be compared with someone who is an accountant. However, if an accountant is no longer able to make sense of the checkbook, there’s a likely a problem. If a word person shows a strikingly limited vocabulary, that too could indicate a problem.
While most types of dementia are not curable, it’s still good to have the disease diagnosed for treatment and planning purposes. Watch for any of these signs, whether subtle or obvious, and if you see them try to have your loved one examined by a qualified physician.
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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.