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Early Signs & Symptoms of Alzheimer's

Alzheimer’s disease is a neural degenerative disorder in which brain cells begin to die progressively; this leads to loss of memory, cognitive thinking and ability, speech disorders and ultimately the ability to perform even simple tasks. Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia (which is a syndrome, not a disease). The disease is named after Dr.Alois Alzheimer, who in1906, observed considerable changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unknown mental ailment that recorded symptoms of memory loss, speech impairment and erratic behaviour. He found clumps (Amyloid Plaque) and intertwined fibre (Neurofibrillary tangles); these two are defining features of Alzheimer’s. The disease also features a loss of connectivity between brain cells and seems to first affect the hippocampus (the area of the brain that stores memory): this is why memory loss is the first sign of onset of dementia. Gradually the damage spreads from the hippocampus into other parts of the brain, disabling the normal day to day functioning of the individual. Approximately fifty million people live with this disease globally and the numbers seem to be growing (there are still a lot of uncharted and undiscovered aspects of factors that cause Alzheimer’s); with the United Nations estimating that these figures could reach around 150 million by 2050 in case no cure is found. Alzheimer’s contributes to about four fifths of all cases of dementia. There is no cure in the offing and Alzheimer’s is an irreversible degeneration of the brain; once it begins it does not stop. The symptoms have to be managed but there is no stalling this disease that claims thousands of lives each year. 

Alzheimer’s is known to set in and affect people over the age of 65 but a small yet significant number of people get an “early” onset; people aged in their 40s and 50s. What makes Alzheimer’s particularly tricky in diagnosing is that many of the early signs & symptoms can be expected and associated with the ageing. For example, it is common for most people to forget things that occurred in the past as they grow older. There are a few symptoms that can be associated with impending Alzheimer’s.

Memory loss is a chief signifier and can point towards Alzheimer’s. Forgetting insignificant details or things is alright, it’s normal; but if one finds a significant or sudden increase in memory lapses in themselves or those around them, they should consult a doctor. Even repeatedly asking the same questions in order to recall an answer can be red flag.

Cognitive Difficulties might arise when it comes to simple mathematics like counting or subtracting. Inability to develop and execute simple plans like shopping for groceries, filling fuel in the

car or maintaining accounts of daily expenses should not be ignored. 

Concentration lapses when it comes to performing simple everyday tasks that are otherwise performed with consummate ease. For example, forgetting a well-known route like travelling from work to home or getting lost in a familiar place like a frequently visited mall or park. 

Difficulty in remembering significant dates like birthdays or anniversaries, trouble with associating the places where those events occurred. Gradually even planning near future events becomes difficult as the mind is unable to comprehend time in a linear manner. When Alzheimer’s intensifies in its latter stages; a person may find it impossible to determine their physical space and how or when they got there. This can cause great fear and panic.

Issues with vision can also arise. Calculating the distance and speed of objects becomes increasingly difficult and driving becomes dangerous (even for others). Bends on the road or road signs may also be ignored. 

Repeating words frequently or sometimes just being unable to find the correct ones, for instance forgetting well used words such as names of places or people, objects like “spoon” or the name of one’s locality. Difficulty in starting and maintaining a conversation may also be encountered. 

An overall sense of forgetfulness sets in; misplacing or losing items regularly and then being unable to recollect where you last saw or kept them. 

People often find making the right decisions harder as behavioural patterns change. For example, one might give away a valuable personal belonging to a stranger or invest heavily in stocks without much thought. Personal decisions like having bath, wearing clean clothes or eating the right food also take a backseat. 

Self isolation from societal gatherings and events is a result of the aforementioned symptoms but this further intensifies the onset of Alzheimer’s. Extremities in mood and overall being begin to increase. Excess joy or sadness, sudden bursts of anger or fear and anxiety coupled with easy irritation are cause for concern. 

These are just some of the symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease but still the “exact” causes for onset are unknown. Experts attribute it to a plethora of factors rather than one single one. Genes have been found to carry the disease through families and these cause Alzheimer’s in those younger than 65. After the age of 85, there is a 50% increased risk of getting Alzheimer’s. 

If you or anyone you know displays any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, kindly arrange a meeting with a doctor immediately.

Dr. Madhukar Bhardwaj
Senior Consultant
Neurology

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