How often do you walk into a room and wonder why you’re there? You focus hard, grit your teeth, and try to remember, but come up blank. You retrace your steps and somewhere on that journey back, it dawns on you why you wanted to go to the room in first place. A niggling thought knocks on the inside of your head, “I hope I’m not losing my memory”.
You start to notice that words escape you – words or names that you know you know. Try as you might, you can’t dredge them up. Then sometime later, or in the wee hours of the morning, the elusive word pops into your head unannounced, completely spontaneously. Relief floods you. ‘Nope, I’m definitely not getting dementia.’
You’ve just been using an object, like your favorite pen, your glasses, or keys, when your attention springs to something else and when it snaps back, you can’t for the life of you find the darned thing. You look high and low and then you look high and low again. Sometime during the day, you stumble across it, right where you’d laid it down, and wonder if you’re getting Alzheimer’s.
If it isn’t enough that we doubt our own brain function, we hear or read more and more stories about memory loss. And there’s a good reason for that. There are nearly 45 million people worldwide with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, and unless a cure is found, that number could easily triple by 2050.
What’s the Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease?
Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability – a decline severe enough to interfere with the functioning of daily life. Dementia is not a disease, but rather a symptom, much like a fever is not a disease but a symptom of illness.
Some diseases with dementia as a symptom, such as thyroid problems, vitamin deficiencies, and depression can be reversed if diagnosed early enough. But dementia is most commonly associated with Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s is an incurable terminal disease that damages the brain, breaking down the physical connections that are necessary to store new information, retrieve old information, feel compassion, be able to reason, and to problem solve. It progresses relentlessly, until finally, if something else doesn’t get the person, they die of starvation because the brain can no longer communicate to the body the need to swallow.
By now you’re probably squirming in your seat wondering what the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are? This is perfectly normal. Studies show that people are more afraid of getting Alzheimer’s than cancer. At least you have a chance with cancer.
Ten Warning Signs
According to the American Alzheimer’s Organization, there are 10 warning signs of possible Alzheimer’s Disease. All of these characteristics may not be present. It takes only one to suggest a trip to a geriatric neurologist.
- Memory Loss that Disrupts Daily Life – not being able to remember new information, forgetting important dates or events, asking the same questions over and over. In contrast, a typical age-related change would be forgetting names or appointments but remembering them later. In other words, you know that you’ve forgotten.
- Challenges in Planning or Problem Solving – losing the ability to do simple math, solving problems, organizing things, keeping track of recipes or monthly bills. Some people may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. In contrast, a typical age-related change would be making occasional errors when balancing a checkbook or adding up numbers.
- Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks – sometimes people have trouble driving a familiar route or forgetting the rules of a game. My husband, Bob, was in year five of Alzheimer’s when he went out to do grocery shopping and didn’t come home for four hours. He was so scared when he found me again, he was shaking. The car was strewn with open maps he couldn’t make heads or tails of. A natural age-related change would be missing a street or freeway exit, but knowing you have. Or you may occasionally need tech help with your computer.
- Confusion with Time or Place – people with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, places or seasons. Sometimes they forget where they are or how they got there. One night, Bob and I were in bed. He started to get up. “Where are you going,” I asked? I have to go home to my wife, he said. “I am your wife.” He sheepishly replied, “Oh” and crawled back into bed. A natural age-related change might be forgetting someone’s birthday but figuring it out later.
- Trouble Understanding Visual Images and Spatial Relationships – for some people, having vision problems is a sign of Alzheimer’s. They may have difficulty reading, judging distance and determining color or contrast, which may cause problems with driving. A natural age-related change could be visual changes due to cataracts or other eye problems.
- Problems with Words in Speaking or Writing – people with Alzheimer’s may have difficulty following a conversation. They stop in the middle and are not be sure how to continue. The may struggle with words, forgetting the names of things. I started to notice that Bob used the word ‘thing’ a lot instead of the object’s name. He would say, “Pass me that thing to stir this stuff with,” when what he wanted was a spoon to stir his iced tea. A natural age-related change would be sometimes not finding the right word or temporarily forgetting a word.
- Misplacing Things and Losing the Ability to Retrace Steps – a person with Alzheimer’s might put things in strange places. They may lose things and not be able to find them. They may accuse others of stealing from them. This was a biggie for us. I would find towels rolled up with things from the bathroom I’d searched for. In his mind, Bob was packing to be ready to travel because traveling was such a big part of our life together. A natural age-related change would be occasionally misplacing something but being able to retrace steps to find it.
- Decreased or Poor Judgment – people with Alzheimer’s might experience changes in judgment or decision-making. They may be duped into giving money to telemarketers or pay less attention to grooming or keeping themselves clean. A natural age-related change might be making a bad decision from time to time, like buying something you didn’t need.
- Withdrawal from Work or Social Activities – a person with Alzheimer’s may start to remove themselves from hobbies, social activities, work projects or sports. They may have trouble following TV programs. A natural age-related change might be sometimes tiring of work, family and social situations and needing more alone time.
- Changes in Mood and Personality – sometimes people with Alzheimer’s become confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful, or anxious. They may be easily upset with others when they are out of their comfort zone. A normal age-related change might come from developing specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when that routine is disrupted.
When to Get Help
The Alzheimer’s Organization suggests that if you or a loved one has any of these characteristics to get it checked out, sooner rather than later.
It’s important to find a specialist who understands the elder brain. Bob and I were given misinformation by a psychiatrist and neurologist because they didn’t know much about dementia. Both said they hoped their brain would be in as good a shape as Bob’s when they were his age. This plunged us back into denial and kept us from getting help early on.
The next time you go into a room and forget why you’re there, or a good friends’ name escapes you, or you misplace your glasses for the umpteenth time in a day, just chalk it up to natural age-related changes unless you can’t retrace your steps, the friend’s name not only doesn’t come back but the person looks unfamiliar, and you’re sure someone stole those missing glasses.
Susan’s book Piece by Piece: Love in the Land of Alzheimer’s is available at Ubud’s Ganesha Book Store, Threads of Life, or on Amazon.
By Susan Tereba
The Boomer Corner is a column dedicated to people over 60 living in Bali. Its mandate is to cover topics, practicalities, activities, issues, concerns and events related to senior life in Bali. We welcome suggestions from readers.
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