Difficulty retaining new information is one of the most common early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease causes changes in the brain that lead to a slow decline in memory, thinking, and reasoning skills. Changes in emotion and behavior may also be symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Although Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have a significant impact on a person’s daily life, these conditions often go unreported and undiagnosed because people tend to regard symptoms as a normal part of aging rather than a sign of disease, notes the Alzheimer’s Association. (1)
Early Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
Each person experiences Alzheimer’s in a unique way. Broadly speaking, however, there are three main stages once Alzheimer’s symptoms begin: mild (early stage), moderate (middle stage), and severe (late stage).
Signs of early-stage dementia include:
- Memory Loss You may have difficulty recalling recently learned information; fail to remember important dates and events; forget to take your medications; ask for the same details over and over; or increasingly rely on memory aids, like reminder notes or asking family members.
- Trouble Planning or Solving Problems You may have difficulty following a familiar recipe, for instance, or keeping track of bills.
- Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks You might have trouble driving to a familiar location, say, or writing out a grocery list.
- Losing a Sense of Time You might become confused about the date, the season, or events that are in the future or past.
- Problems With Visual Images or Spatial Relationships These issues may lead to difficulty with reading, balance, judging distance, and driving.
- Difficulty With Words You may have trouble following a conversation or using the right words — calling a watch a “hand clock,” for instance.
- Misplacing Items You might stash things in unusual places, then not know where to find them.
- Decreased or Poor Judgment You may begin making unwise financial decisions, for instance, or neglect personal care, like bathing.
- Social Withdrawal You might begin to pull away from the people you work with, family, or friends, or you might drop social engagements or hobbies.
- Mood and Personality Changes You might experience confusion, anger, suspicion, fear, anxiety, or depression, or become easily upset. (1)
If you experience any of these Alzheimer’s symptoms or recognize them in someone close to you, talk to a doctor who can work with you to make a diagnosis and find the best treatment.
Mild Cognitive Impairment May Be a Sign of Alzheimer’s
As people age, they may become more forgetful — taking longer to put a name to a face, say, or to remember a computer password.
But a condition called mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is more significant than that. For some people, it may be a precursor to Alzheimer’s or even an early form of the disease.
Individuals with MCI may have memory and other cognitive problems that are noticeable to them and to people close to them. But these problems aren’t typically serious enough to interfere with everyday activities.
Between 30 to 50 percent of those with MCI go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease within 5 to 10 years. (2)
In contrast, only 1 to 3 percent of people who are 65 or older and who have normal cognition will develop Alzheimer’s in any given year.
Amnestic MCI primarily affects memory, while non-amnestic MCI affects thinking skills not associated with memory, such as decision-making. (3)
If you have MCI you may notice the following symptoms:
- You forget things more often, such as recent conversations.
- You forget about important events, like appointments and social plans.
- You lose your train of thought or have trouble following a conversation or the plots of movies or books.
- You feel increasingly overwhelmed by making decisions, planning steps to accomplish a task, or understanding instructions.
- You have trouble navigating places you know well.
- You begin making unusually poor decisions or become more impulsive.
- Your family and friends notice these changes.
You may also experience changes in mood, such as:
- Irritability and anger
Importantly, MCI doesn’t always lead to dementia.
Some people with mild MCI never get worse, while others eventually get better and even return to having normal cognitive abilities, notes the Mayo Clinic. (4)
Researchers are working to understand why some people with MCI develop Alzheimer’s and why others don’t. (3)
RELATED: How to Spot Health Problems in Your Aging Parents
Signs of Early-Onset Alzheimer’s
Although people over age 65 are the most vulnerable to Alzheimer’s, the disease is sometimes diagnosed in people who are much younger.
Of the more than six million Americans living with Alzheimer’s dementia, around 200,000 develop it before age 65. They may be in their fifties, forties, and even their thirties, notes the Alzheimer’s Association. (2)
For most people, the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s mirror those of the late-onset kind.
But when younger people develop Alzheimer’s, they are more likely than older people to develop what’s called an atypical version.
These rarer forms of Alzheimer’s account for up to one-third of all cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s but only 5 percent of late-onset cases. (5)
While memory loss is commonly the first sign of so-called common Alzheimer’s disease, other symptoms tend to appear first with the atypical type.
These may include:
- Vision Problems Even when the eyes are healthy, the person can have difficulty identifying objects or reading, judging distance, or coordinating movement (such as when getting dressed).
- Problems With Language The person may have trouble using the right words, or may need to take long pauses while speaking.
- Issues With Planning and Decision-Making
- Changes in Mood and Personality The person may behave in socially inappropriate ways or seem not to care how others feel. (6)
When It Looks Like Alzheimer’s but Isn’t
Sometimes older people worry that mild forgetfulness means they have Alzheimer’s disease.
But a certain amount of forgetfulness — like losing things from time to time — is a normal part of aging. Typical changes in the brain can mean it takes longer to learn new skills or remember information than in the past.
Certain treatable medical conditions can also cause memory loss. These include:
- Tumors, blood clots, or brain infections
- Some thyroid, liver, or kidney disorders
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Head injury, such as a concussion from a fall
- Medication side effects
- Not eating enough healthy foods or having a vitamin deficiency
Emotional problems such as stress, anxiety, or depression can also be mistaken for Alzheimer’s because they can lead to confusion or forgetfulness. If these feelings persist for more than two weeks, be sure to consult a healthcare professional, recommends the National Institute on Aging. (7)
Why Early Detection Matters
Identifying Alzheimer’s symptoms and getting an accurate diagnosis as early as possible is vital for a number of reasons. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, it can:
- Enable you to find treatments that can help lesson symptoms such as memory loss for a limited time
- Give you the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial (such as from the Alzheimer’s Association database of more than 250 research studies taking place at locations across the country and online) (8)
- Allow you to make positive lifestyle changes, such as getting regular exercise, that may help stave off cognitive decline
- Give you more time to plan for your future, such as making legal and financial decisions and arranging for caregiving help or other types of support that you may need (9)