Ask the Expert: What are the Early Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease?

Ascension Medical Group physician Jenese Reynolds-Gibbs, M.D. tells us what to look out for and how to support our loved ones.

Alzheimer's disease

Imagine an incurable disease with no known cause. It slowly steals your memory; eventually rendering you unable to speak or perform the most basic daily activities. That’s Alzheimer’s disease.

“Alzheimer’s is a complex disease that includes a gradual disruption in memory and learning skills,” says Dr. Jenese Reynolds-Gibbs, M.D., a family physician with Ascension Medical Group. “The age of symptom appearance is usually in the mid-60s. It is not reversible, but some medications and interventions can slow the progression.”

According to Emory University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death for all Americans, and the fourth leading cause of death for older African Americans. Additionally, Emory notes that African American elders are two to three times more likely to have Alzheimer’s disease compared to Caucasians.

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Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have developed a blood test that “shows promise” in detecting Alzheimer’s at a very early stage. However, it’s too soon to know whether the test will be truly effective. In the meantime, observing your loved one is key.

Dr. Reynolds-Gibbs encourages family and friends to be especially alert for any problems with memory and other early warning signs of Alzheimer’s. “Aside from memory issues, early signs of Alzheimer’s may include difficulty finding words, impairment of judgment, or being easily distracted when completing familiar tasks,” she says.

Not all forgetfulness signals Alzheimer’s, though. Dr. Reynolds-Gibbs explains, “Age-related or ‘normal’ forgetfulness usually occurs periodically. It may happen when the person is preoccupied with other things, but they remember the items or tasks later.”

“Family members should be concerned if the memory issues are progressive and include very familiar things like names of loved ones, or if there are personality changes,” she adds. Past medical history plays a large role in developing Alzheimer’s disease.

“Some risk factors for dementia include diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and obesity. Preventing and/or controlling these conditions can reduce the risk of developing dementia,” Dr. Reynolds-Gibbs says.

If you have concerns about an aging loved one, Dr. Reynolds-Gibbs urges an exam with your primary care provider. “Early detection may help slow the process and help the family plan for the future,” she says. Loved ones that refuse to see a doctor, or will not admit there are problems, present a special situation. Dr. Reynolds-Gibbs encourages family members to learn all they can about the disease, then approach the person.

“I recommend expressing those concerns one-on-one with the person. A group approach can be overwhelming or threatening,” she says. Seeing a doctor is vital to rule out other illnesses. “Memory issues and behavioral changes may be due to reversible causes like low thyroid, vitamin deficiencies, depression, brain tumors or medication interactions,” Dr. Reynolds-Gibbs says.

“It may take several conversations before they are willing to seek medical attention.” If the person absolutely refuses to see their doctor, Dr. Reynolds-Gibbs encourages family members to take advantage of dementia caregiver support groups. “Family members have to be an advocate for their loved ones,” she says. “It is OK to seek another opinion.”

Get more health information and find a doctor near you by visiting ascension.org/michigan or calling 866-501-DOCS (3627).

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