Is It Alzheimer's?

If you talked to as many caregivers as I have over the years, you'd know that it's not the least bit unusual for them to wonder, "Is it Alzheimer's or just aging?" This heart-wrenching question hangs over the heads of many, many families for many, many months without ever once being spoken out loud.

Often, it takes one courageous family member to step forward, say it out loud, discuss it with other family members, admit that it is time (or long past time) to make a doctor's appointment for their loved one, pick up the telephone, make the appointment, and take their loved one to find out.

Is It Just Aging?

Many people experience some memory problems as they age. And there are several different conditions that can affect memory, such as thyroid problems, infections, severe dehydration, head injury, and serious depression. Often, the patient's memory improves once the condition that caused the problem is being treated.

However, experts agree that serious memory loss and confusion are not a part of the normal aging process.

Symptoms of Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that attacks the brain, causing problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. When you take your loved one to the doctor, he or she will no doubt ask if you're noticing any of the following symptoms in your loved one's behavior:

  • Gradual memory loss that affects daily living
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems naming common objects
  • Getting lost easily, even in familiar places
  • Decreased or poor judgment
  • Changes in mood, behavior, or personality
  • Loss of interest in hobbies

Evaluation and Diagnosis

There's no single test that can determine whether a person has a serious memory problem. A diagnosis is made after a complete medical evaluation, which typically includes:

  • Medical and psychological history
  • Physical and neurological exam
  • A mental status test, to measure the patient's thinking and memory
  • Evaluation of ability to perform activities of daily living
  • Lab tests
  • An interview with a family member

An Alzheimer's diagnosis often brings forth profoundly personal and highly emotional reactions among family members. The key is to be patient with one another and give yourselves time to process it—remember, you don't have to figure out what you're going to do right away.

In addition, learn more about Alzheimer's treatment and care options so you can best meet your loved one's needs as they change over time. Try to remember that the diagnosis is the first step in enabling your family to explore reasonable and realistic treatment and care plans for your loved one.