With all the public interest in Alzheimer's disease these days it wouldn't be unusual for you to fear you are getting it. When you have what we refer to as 'a senior moment' you may laugh about it with your friends, but you may also be among the numerous people who are secretly afraid it may be an early sign of dementia.
Ed, my Romanian soul mate, was very concerned he might have dementia. He, too, reacted by joking about it. He concluded every medical visit - regardless of what type of physician he was seeing that day - by loudly pronouncing, "At least it isn't Alzheimer's!" Then he laughed heartily. The unfortunate fact, however, was that he did indeed have Alzheimer's.
Two groups of people are especially vulnerable to the fear they are getting dementia - those who have a loved one with dementia and those who work with dementia patients, say at a nursing home or assisted living memory care unit. If you belong to one or both of these groups, you witness signs of dementia daily and as a result, become highly attuned to them. You may be so familiar with the symptoms that you begin to interpret some of your own behaviors and memory issues, no matter how minor or infrequent, as an early warning that you, too, are becoming a victim.
I currently have a friend who is worried about her mental state. She works in the field of Alzheimer's and her spouse died from the disease. She's experiencing some bothersome symptoms and has consulted four different health care professionals. They all told her they don't think anything serious is wrong. And they all said they think she's overreacting because of her experience as an Alzheimer's family caregiver and professional caregiver. She tells me that some days she thinks the doctors are right, but on other days she's convinced that she really is developing dementia.
Most of us have had moments of concern after being unable to remember someone's name, forgetting why we went into a room, not being able to find our car keys, or stopping mid-sentence and not being able to remember what we were going to say. How are we to know whether it's a normal sign of aging or whether it may be something far more ominous?
The Alzheimer's Association has addressed this issue in a 17-page PDF, Basics of Alzheimer's Disease - What It Is and What to Do. This document includes a section on the 10 warning signs. The important feature of this PDF is that it doesn't just list the signs of Alzheimer's. After a brief description of each there is a statement about "What's a typical age-related change?"
After studying the above document in detail, one could conclude that generally speaking it isn't what signs of dementia we have that matter. Rather, it's typically their frequency, severity and the extent to which they interfere with our daily activities that count.
The American Health Assistance Foundation states that Alzheimer's can only be diagnosed with 100 percent accuracy during an autopsy. But according to the Alzheimer's Association, experts estimate that a skilled physician can diagnose it with more than 90 percent accuracy.
"Having trouble with memory doesn't mean you have Alzheimer's. Many health issues can cause problems with memory and thinking. When dementia-like symptoms are caused by treatable conditions - such as depression, drug interactions, thyroid problems, excess use of alcohol or certain vitamin deficiencies - they may be reversed."
If you have serious concerns about your mental state it is advisable to see a primary care physician or a neurologist as soon as possible. That's the only way to put your mind at ease - one way or the other. It's the only way to find out if it's just normal aging, some other health problem, or if it's in fact Alzheimer's.
Marie Marley is the author of the award-winning Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.