Early Signs of Alzheimer's Disease

Are you concerned that you or someone you love may be exhibiting early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease (or any of a number of other diseases that cause slowly advancing dementia)? Alzheimer's disease affects millions of people worldwide. While it is a disease normally associated with aging and the elderly, it can also affect people at very young ages who inherited a genetic form of the disease from their families. Scientists are not entirely certain what causes Alzhimer's and it is currently impossible to diagnose it with one hundred percent certainty while the patient is still alive (an examination of the brain during an autopsy is the only certain diagnostic procedure).

Alzheimer's disease appears to be related to the buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brain, which cause crucial connections between neurons in the brain to break down, preventing effective transmission of signals within and external to the brain. Scientists are trying to find ways to prevent or slow the progression of brain damage caused by the disease. Some drugs show promising potential, and a few FDA approved drugs can slow the progression of the disease in its early stages, but there is no cure for the disease at this time.

In its very early stages, Alzheimer's disease is impossible to distinguish from the normal effects of aging. Minor lapses in memory occur in everyone, especially at older ages, and are not necessarily signs of advancing dementia.

Early signs of Alzheimer's disease can include subtle memory lapses and episodes of confusion over mundane activities, such as the rote motions associated with driving a car or cooking a familiar meal. Loss of simple words in conversation or forgetting names of familiar people, if occurring with increasing frequency, can be a symptom of impending dementia. Alzheimer's diseases advances with varying speed in individual patients. Some studies indicate that a balanced, low-fat diet and regular exercise can delay the onset of the disease and slow its progression. The intelligence of the patient can also affect the speed of deterioration, with highly intelligent individuals appearing to be affected by the progressing dementia much more slowly than others, perhaps because such individuals unconsciously employ adaptive strategies to circumvent the obvious effects of the dementia, such as finding alternate words for more familiar ones that can't be recalled easily.

A qualified psychologist can administer a battery of psychological tests to a patient to determine with a fairly high degree of certainty whether the patient is in the early stages of dementia. These tests include simple things like asking the patient to draw the hands of a clock in the correct position for a given time of day, or asking the patient her age or what the season of the year is, or who is currently the president of the United States.

Knowing with reasonable certainty that you or your loved one is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease can be a terrifying revelation, since the downward path to total dementia is inevitable, incurable, and can only be slowed, at best, with modern pharmaceuticals. However, having early knowledge of the disease allows you to assess what is really important in your life or the life of your loved one, so that you can maximize the joy of the good days remaining to you. Advanced knowledge of progressing dementia also allows the patient and her family to get financial affairs, legal details, and funeral plans in order while the patient is still capable of participating in the decision-making process.

If you suspect that you or someone you love is in the early stages of dementia, discuss it with your health care professional, arrange for evaluation by an expert in dementia, take advantage of the latest medical advances, and take care to make the most of today and every day.

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