Health & Wellness

Is It Alzheimer's Or Normal Signs of Aging?

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Forgetting where you put your car keys, calling a friend by the wrong name and losing your way when traveling can be unnerving but not necessarily signs of anything serious.

Yet, these events can trigger fears of Alzheimer’s disease, symptoms of which first appear usually after age 60. Here are common signs of the disease and ways they differ from normal aging. 

1. Memory loss

Having difficulty recalling events is not a red flag on its own, says Michael Harrington, MD, Alzheimer’s disease researcher at Huntington Medical Research Institute, Pasadena, Calif. “Losing your keys is not worrisome. Forgetting how to use those keys is a concern.” In age-related memory loss the details are often eventually recalled. For example, you may forget a friend's name or the name of a popular song but you remember it later in the day. "Walking into a room and forgetting why you went there is irritating but less of a concern," says Harrington. Completely forgetting a familiar person's name is a more serious (and later stage) sign.

2. Depression

As with memory loss, depression on its own isn’t necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s disease, says Harrington. “Although depression and anxiety appear to be risk factors for dementia. Any behavior that’s noticeably different might be a flag of concern.” Often times depression can be remedied by medicine, although response to treatment varies. “It could be of concern if the person does not respond to medication,” he adds. In fact, depression may occur before memory loss in people who go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study from Washington University. Depression and Alzheimer's disease often go hand-in-hand but one does not necessarily lead to the other. An examination by a physician is required to determine if they are connected.

3. Mood changes

Hormonal changes associated with menopause, for example, can bring about age-related moodiness. But extreme inappropriate behavior may indicate dementia, says Harrington, who cites behavior such as appearing in public naked as a dramatic example. “Speech may become very difficult and language becomes severely disordered as well," he says. "Losing your mind typically starts with decision making disturbances."

4. Becoming disoriented

Getting lost when traveling to a new destination is common, but becoming lost in a familiar setting such as one’s neighborhood or when driving to a nearby relative or friends house may be a cause for concern, says Allen Towfigh, MD, neurologist affiliated with Weill Cornell Medical Center/New York Presbyterian Hospital, NYC. “If [the memory loss or disorientation] impairs someone’s ability to perform their daily activities or interferes with their routine or if it raises concern among family members, it should be investigated by a doctor.”

5. Trouble with household tasks

Occasionally missing a monthly payment can happen, especially as we age. But the inability to manage a budget or difficulty with simple math (such as determining the correct change to give at the store) may require a medical evaluation, says Towfigh. ​Investigating the causes of memory loss usually include a simple questionnaire or memory evaluation in the office of a physician.

Work-ups to test for Alzheimer’s usually involve imaging of the brain with a CAT scan or MRI along with an EEG looking for slowing or abnormal brain waves, says Towfigh. “Blood work is usually also obtained to look for any other contributing causes such as thyroid function, B12 levels and other serum abnormalities.” 

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