Researchers are looking hard for subtle tell-tale clues and tests to catch the disease earlier. Don’t panic — but watch for these early signs of Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s disease seems to build up over 10 to 20 years before we see symptoms. In theory, this gives us time to catch the earliest signs and do everything possible to prepare for the disease or slow its progress. Any significant change in a person’s usual behavior or abilities could give you reason for concern.
Researchers are looking hard for subtle tell-tale clues and tests to catch the disease earlier. Don’t panic — but watch for these early signs of Alzheimer’s:
1. Oversleeping. Middle-aged people who gradually begin to sleep nine hours or more a night over time — on average, 13 years — are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, according to a 2017 study. Lingering in bed may be a symptom, rather than a cause, however.
2. Poor sense of smell. There are dozens of ailments and medications that could interfere with smell, including the beginnings of dementia. The most common test is called “UPSIT,” although good tests for sense of smell are not yet available and their value is limited. When volunteers in their sixties and seventies take the test, low scores can predict who is most likely to suffer mental decline in the next several years. In another test, having more trouble smelling peanut butter with your left nostril than your right turned out to predict future Alzheimer’s.
3. Poor balance. If your mother is shuffling or falls, you might seek out a memory test. A person who can’t stand on one leg for 5 seconds or more is likely to have more than twice as much memory decline two years later, compared to someone who can.
4. Losing weight, unintentionally. It’s a good idea for people to fight middle-age bulge, since this will help you fight diabetes, which may be related to Alzheimer’s. However, people who slowly lose weight after midlife without trying are at risk. Specifically, in one well-regarded study, 57 percent of men who developed dementia had lost 11 pounds or more in the six years before their diagnosis, compared to 35 percent of those who did not develop dementia. In a 2016 study, losing 11 pounds a decade from midlife to your 70s corresponded to a 24 percent increase in the risk of cognitive impairment in your seventies.
5. High levels of insulin or glucose in the blood. There is much evidence that dementia is related to diabetes or the process leading up to full-fledged diabetes.
6. Rambling speech. Going off on tangents may be an early sign of what scientists call “mild cognitive impairment,” which can lead to Alzheimer's.
7. Personality changes. Sometimes a shy or reserved person can become sociable or overtalkative. Dementia affects your judgement, so people may become more impulsive.
8. Apathy. Dementia patients may lose interest in their usual activities.
9. Trouble finding words. “It slipped my tongue.” As we age, we all have moments when we can’t pull up names, maybe for people we know slightly, streets, or public figures. But people with dementia have trouble recalling ordinary words. If these lapses regularly make it hard for you or a loved one to communicate, ask for a test.
10. Losing a sense of direction. People vary a great deal in how easily they can orient themselves in space. But if you experience a big drop in your ability to get around in familiar locations, see a doctor. People with Alzheimer’s can fail to recognize once-familiar landmarks and forget their normal routes. They also have a harder time following instructions.
Remember that no one symptom is proof of a disease. Also, all of these 10 early signs of Alzheimer’s may not show up in each person. If you see three or more signs, speak to a doctor and consider buying long-term care insurance or making other changes in case you or someone you love will need care.
Even younger people need to know at least some of these 10 early signs of Alzheimer’s because the disease can begin as young as the thirties, forties or fifties. With an early diagnosis and treatment, its progress can be slowed down. Keep your mind active with word puzzles, challenging games, and reading. Stay socially engaged. Aim for a minimum of a half hour of exercise five days a week. Stop smoking and eat more vegetables and fruits, and avoid foods that are crispy from high heat, especially fatty meat.
April 18, 2017
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA