Ideally, both the patient and the family would benefit from an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (which is by far the most common cause of dementia). This allows everyone involved to make workable plans for the future, while your parent can still be an active participant in the decision making.
The onset of dementia comes with very subtle symptoms and can easily be missed until they become more apparent after many years. Memory loss is commonly considered the primary symptom of Alzheimer's and of dementia, but this is not always the case. Health professionals, particularly neurologists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, use several indicators to test for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
You should become familiar with symptoms doctors look for. These symptoms can serve as prompts to have a parent or loved one undergo testing for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
- Changes in behavior and moods. A common early symptom is indifference to or lack of interest in activities that people normally take pleasure in. Your parent may display no interest in interacting with friends or playing with grandchildren. The mood changes from one extreme to another are usually rapid with no apparent cause. There is a tendency to pace endlessly or walk around aimlessly.
- Changes in personality. The parent’s social behavior can become inappropriate or tactless. The person can harbor paranoid feelings about family members and friends, or become unable to control strong emotions such as anger. Personality change can mean the person becomes more pleasant, gentler or kinder at times, but this does not last very long.
- Problems with communication/language. Progressive deterioration of the brain gradually erases the ability to read, write and understand. The parent may no longer understand the newspaper. Common objects become difficult to name. Eventually, the ability to speak may disappear altogether and only meaningless sounds can be produced.
- Problems doing complex movements. Skilled motions people take for granted can become very difficult to execute, such as buttoning shirts, pouring coffee, and putting on a belt. Coordinated movements of hands for cooking, using a screwdriver or tying a necktie, can no longer be done.
- Difficulty recognizing familiar people and places. It may be time to have a test for dementia if your parent is unable to recognize children, grandchildren or close friends. The family home may appear totally strange, and your parent may even get lost in a very familiar neighborhood.
- Problems with abstract thinking and “executive” functions. Higher brain functions that need abstract thinking, such as planning activities or understanding complex concepts, become impossible to do. The sequence of steps involved in cooking a meal or driving a car become too confusing, as the mind can no longer handle doing multiple tasks simultaneously.
Dementia is irreversible. There are no known cures for it. Early diagnosis can enable health care professionals to recommend strategies to alleviate some of the symptoms. As well, early diagnosis helps you prepare more fully for your parent’s future requirements. The observant family member can help in making sure parents gets evavluated for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.