If your mom suddenly keeps misplacing her keys or your grandfather persistently calls you by your sister's name, your mind might automatically jump to Alzheimer's disease. But are these types of symptoms really early signs of Alzheimer's disease, or does it present differently in the beginning stages?
In the earliest stage of Alzheimer's disease, people actually do not show any symptoms at all.
Alzheimer's is a progressive brain disorder that occurs in phases, slowly destroying a person's memory, cognitive functions, and eventually many physical abilities as well. The condition is in five different stages, starting with what is known as preclinical Alzheimer's disease. This is when a person is not showing signs of the condition, but their brain is undergoing changes that eventually cause symptoms.
During this time, protein deposits in the brain form abnormal clumps that interrupt the way brain cells communicate, Mayo Clinic explains. The brain also begins to create tangled bundles of fibers necessary for transporting essential materials for proper brain function, like nutrients. These changes mean that the neurons used to be healthy stop function, lose connections with other neurons, and die, according to National Institute on Aging (NIA).
There is a lot of scientists still do not know about Alzheimer's disease, but it is believed that this damage to a person's brain can begin 10 years or more before symptoms appear, according to Mayo Clinic.
It may seem like memory issues would be the earliest sign of Alzheimer's. They can be, but many people with the condition actually experience problems with other cognitive functions first.
The second stage of Alzheimer's disease is known as mild cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer's disease, Mayo Clinic explains.
Signs of this often include problems of finding the right words, issues accurately processing visual or spatial information, and impaired reasoning or judgment, the NIA says. However, in this stage it is also possible to have memory lapses and be unable to recall things like recent chats or upcoming appointments that were made recently, the Mayo Clinic says.
"These [symptoms] can be easy to miss or write off, " Scott Kaiser, MD, and a family physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF, because at this point they are not severe enough to affect a person's daily life.
As the disease progresses to "mild dementia due to Alzheimer's disease", which is when people are usually diagnosed, the symptoms become more varied and intense.
"We look for more consistent trends in terms of things getting worse over a somewhat shorter period of time," Ian M. Grant, MD, and behavioral neurologist at the Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF.
For example, someone might have started asking the same questions about something they recently learned because they keep forgetting the answer, the Mayo Clinic says. More severe issues with problem-solving and decision-making can lead to a tougher time with important tasks like balancing a checkbook or sticking to a budget. People may also begin to feel increasingly unfamiliar in their surroundings and wander in the search for a place that feels more recognizable, possibly getting lost.
This is also the time when personality changes may begin to appear Mayo Clinic says. A person with Alzheimer's may experience more anxiety or anger, for example.
Again, there is a lot that experts still do not understand about Alzheimer's disease, but the reason for these different symptoms is likely to depend on whether the damage has occurred in a person's brain. Kaiser says. For example, if someone has a damage to their front lobe, which controls personality among other things, they may experience irritability, mood changes, and difficulty in regulating their behavior, he says. Visual and spatial problems may be due to the disease build up in the occipital lobe, which is important for vision processing, Dr. Grant says.
If you suspect that a loved one is experiencing early signs of Alzheimer's disease, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible.
Getting checked out can alleviate a lot of stress and identify any underlying, non-Alzheimer's issues that may be causing the symptoms. It could be that the symptoms are due to something potentially reversible. For example, elderly people are at a higher risk of subdural hematoma, which is a brain bleeding that can happen after a fall, the Mayo Clinic says.
If the symptoms are actually due to Alzheimer's, getting a proper diagnosis can help someone start treatment as quickly as possible, which is really essential when it comes to this illness.
Several medicines have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat Alzheimer's symptoms, and they may even help slow the disease's progression NIA says. The drugs work by impacting neurotransmitters, the chemicals that transmit messages between neurons, and may help reduce symptoms, NIA says. However, they can not offer a cure.
There are also many active clinical trials that are taking place in the search for promising Alzheimer's therapies NIA explains. Many focus on the early stages of the disease, so it is the ideal time to start expressing interest in participating.
Finally, getting an Alzheimer's diagnosis as soon as possible is of the essence because it allows a person to get their affairs in order and line up help they may need, Grant says. This will generally help them plan how they can make the most of the time they've left. It might be hard to even think about this for a loved one, let alone help them get it done – but it only gets harder the longer you wait.