I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad today. Dad passed away on Apr. 12, 2010 of complications from dementia. What’s somewhat baffling is that my stepmother’s mental health has since deteriorated in almost exactly the same way, and she’s now in the hospital unable to live independently any longer. Both my dad and stepmother fell into the 2% of people who developed symptoms before the age of 75.
Until I heard Dad’s diagnosis, I always thought dementia and Alzheimer’s were the same when, in actuality, Alzheimer’s is the name of a specific type of dementia. All other dementia has some other origin. Dad’s dementia was characterized by a series of mini-strokes, and he had a massive stroke the night before he passed away.
People joke about memory problems all the time but, at least in the UK, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have overtaken cancer as the #1 health fear. So, rather than sweeping that fear under the carpet, it’s worthwhile to confront it head-on.
Some memory problems can be chalked up to simply getting older. But, the following are 10 warning signs from the Alzheimer’s Association that could potentially indicate a more serious health concern. If there’s reason to worry, seeing your doctor early could mean far better treatment and a far better prognosis.
1. Memory loss.
Forgetting recently learned information is one of the most common early signs of dementia. A person begins to forget more often and is unable to recall the information later.
What’s normal? Forgetting names or appointments occasionally.
2. Difficulty performing familiar tasks.
People with dementia often find it hard to plan or complete everyday tasks. Individuals may lose track of the steps to prepare a meal, place a telephone call or play a game.
What’s normal? Occasionally forgetting why you came into a room or what you planned to say.
3. Problems with language.
People with Alzheimer’s disease often forget simple words or substitute unusual words, making their speech or writing hard to understand. They may be unable to find their toothbrush, for example, and instead ask for “that thing for my mouth.”
What’s normal? Sometimes having trouble finding the right word.
4. Disorientation to time and place.
People with Alzheimer’s disease can become lost in their own neighborhoods. They can forget where they are and how they got there. They may not know how to get back home.
What’s normal? Forgetting the day of the week or where you were going.
5. Poor or decreased judgement.
People with Alzheimer’s may dress inappropriately, wearing several layers on a warm day or not enough clothing in the cold. They may show poor judgement about money, like giving away large sums to telemarketers.
What’s normal? Making a questionable or debatable decision from time to time.
Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may have unusual difficulty performing complex mental tasks, like forgetting what numbers are and how they should be used.
What’s normal? Finding it challenging to balance a checkbook.
7. Misplacing things.
A person with Alzheimer’s disease may put things in unusual places: an iron in the freezer or a wristwatch in the sugar bowl.
What’s normal? Misplacing keys or a wallet occasionally.
8. Changes in mood or behavior.
Someone with Alzheimer’s disease may show rapid mood swings from calm to tears to anger for no apparent reason.
What’s normal? Occasionally feeling sad or moody.
9. Changes in personality.
The personalities of people with dementia can change dramatically. They may become extremely confused, suspicious, fearful or dependent on a family member.
What’s normal? People’s personalities do change somewhat with age.
10. Loss of initiative.
A person with Alzheimer’s disease may become very passive, sitting in front of the TV for hours, sleeping more than usual or not wanting to do usual activities.
What’s normal? Sometimes feeling weary of work or social obligations.
There’s no sure-fire way to prevent dementia, but the Mayo Clinic suggests some steps you can take that might help. More research is needed, but it can’t hurt to do the following:
- Keep your mind active. Mentally stimulating activities may increase your ability to cope with or compensate for the changes associated with dementia. This includes such things as doing puzzles and word games, learning a language, playing an instrument, reading, writing, painting or drawing. Not only can these activities delay the onset of dementia, but they can help decrease its effects — the more frequent the activity, the more beneficial the effects.
- Be physically and socially active. Physical and social activities can delay the onset of dementia and also reduce its symptoms. The more frequent the activities, the more significant their effects. Examples of physical activity are walking, swimming and dancing. Social activities include traveling, attending the theater and art exhibits, and playing cards or games.
- Lower your homocysteine levels. Early research has shown that high doses of three B vitamins — folic acid, B-6 and B-12 — help lower homocysteine levels and appear to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Lower your cholesterol levels. The deposits that occur in the brains of people with high cholesterol are one of the causes of vascular dementia. So lowering your cholesterol levels can help prevent this condition. Statin drugs, which help lower cholesterol levels, may also help lower the risk of developing dementia.
- Control your diabetes. Controlling diabetes can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
- Quit smoking. Although some studies indicate that only current smoking increases dementia risk, at least one large study found that heavy smoking (more than two packs a day) in midlife more than doubles your risk, even two decades later.
- Lower your blood pressure. Keeping blood pressure at normal levels can significantly reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
- Pursue education. People who’ve spent more time in formal education appear to have a lower incidence of mental decline, even when they have brain abnormalities. Researchers think that education may help your brain develop a strong nerve cell network that compensates for nerve cell damage caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
- Maintain a healthy diet. Eating a healthy diet is important for many reasons, but studies show that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in certain fish and nuts, can have a protective effect and decrease your risk of developing dementia.
- Get your vaccinations. Those who receive vaccinations for influenza, tetanus, diphtheria and polio appear to have a significantly reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, so staying current on your vaccinations could have a protective effect against developing dementia.
I don’t know about you but all this information has done wonders for my mind. I even have a mind to do something about it…
“The patient should be made to understand that he or she must take charge of his own life. Don’t take your body to the doctor as if he were a repair shop.” ~Quentin Regestein
“If I’d known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself.” ~Leon Eldred