7 Signs Santa Has Alzheimer's

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Doctors know well that the holidays bring an upturn in families noticing worrisome signs of memory loss in older adults. No disrespect to Santa intended, but Jolly Old St. Nick also shows a worrisome number of not-so-jolly potential symptoms of dementia.

Only a doctor, of course, can diagnose Alzheimer's disease. But Mrs. Claus would do well to take a closer look at the following warning signs, which warrant a cognitive evaluation and medical exam in order to rule out other possible causes of dementia or -- though it seems impossible to imagine in someone known for his ho, ho, ho -- depression.

1. Santa keeps making that list and checking it twice.

People with early memory loss are often aware that they're slipping, and they struggle to employ strategies to help them keep track. Writing notes to themselves is one way they do this. Eventually, though, the person with cognitive trouble forgets ever having written a list in the first place and then never consults it later.

Why does Santa check his list twice? Maybe he's just careful -- after all, it's a long list. But obsessively checking and rechecking a note or the clock -- often because you literally can't remember just having done so -- is a common sign of memory loss. The ability to record these new memories is impaired.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

2. He wears the same clothes over and over.

Have you ever seen Santa wearing anything besides that fur-trimmed red suit? Wearing the same clothes repeatedly is another hallmark of advancing cognitive difficulty.

It's possible, of course, that the red suit is just Santa's chosen uniform, a la Steve Jobs -- but even Jobs ditched his signature black turtleneck and jeans for sleeping or sports. If Mrs. Claus has to sneak the suit out of the room at night in order to wash it every now and again, or if there are blue and yellow suits hanging in the closet that never get selected, she might consider this a red flag.

3. He needs a red-nosed reindeer to direct him on the same route he's driven for years.

You'd think Santa would know his worldwide sky routes like the back of his hand by now, instead of having to seek out a bright-nosed reindeer to lead the way.

But getting lost on familiar routes is often one of the earliest memory symptoms families notice. One classic clue: driving the same way for years but suddenly having moments of confusion during which he or she isn't certain of the location or destination. Both memory loss and "motion blindness" -- the ability to perceive motion well and navigate the environment -- are to blame.

SEE ALSO: Find In-Home Care Help Near You

If kids in Tokyo or Toledo wake up without any toys this Christmas, it just might be because Santa got lost in Tibet.

4. He's getting up there in years.

Alzheimer's disease isn't an inevitable side effect of aging. But the odds of developing it do increase with age. As many as one in two people over age 85 have signs of dementia. And Santa is how old? Multiple centuries?

5. He asks the same questions over and over. ("What do you want for Christmas?" "Have you been a good little girl?")

Spend a few minutes with someone with mild dementia, and repetition -- of questions, comments, and even word-for-word long anecdotes -- is often apparent. The person may seem to get stuck on just a few phrases with certain people or in certain situations. Always asking a grandchild, "How's school?" or an adult child, "How's the family?" for example, are helpful crutches that the person with mild dementia may use to mask an underlying uncertainty.

Makes you wonder what Santa has ever said to a child around the globe besides, "What do you want for Christmas?" and "Have you been good?" You'd think he'd have plenty of stories and advice to share, but we just don't hear it.

6. He's obese.

The exact cause of Alzheimer's is unknown. But scientists have uncovered plenty of risk factors. High on the list: obesity. Santa's exact weight is unknown, but nobody looking at that bowl full of shaking jelly would place him inside the "normal" columns of the body-mass-index chart.

Belly fat (weight centered in the midsection) is clearly associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, especially when it accumulates in midlife. People who are obese also tend to develop diabetes and heart disease, which are themselves linked to a higher risk of dementia.

7. He's prone to mistaking the chimney for a door, and to calling musical instruments "rooty-toot-toots and rummy-tum-tums."

It's hard to understand why Santa chooses to use the chimney over the door, given that everyone's supposed to be asleep anyway and given how often he flops into fires and ashes. But cognitive difficulties often cause confusion in behavior and language.

Misusing words, a part of a general condition of language problems called aphasia, is another common development with dementia. Some people with dementia call a toothbrush a "mouth scraper" or a "thingamajig," for example. Songs about Santa refer to "rooty-toot-toots" and rummy-tum-tums" for musical instruments. Hmmm. . . .

Here's hoping those hardworking toymaker elves are also good at caregiving, since -- as far as we know -- Mr. and Mrs. Claus have no children of their own up at the Pole to step up to the demands of the job.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

over 4 years, said...

Great anaolgy ! Makes you think. My father is gone now but it reminded me of how the demensia set in before we recognized it.

about 6 years, said...

Good analogies, both humorous and helpful to remember

over 6 years, said...

Very imaginative and useful article!

over 6 years, said...

Some times we wax nostalgic for the perfect old days, but in my experience, they were never perfect. Everyone experiences loss and expectations aren't always met ( how lucky you are if your childhood Christmases were all about heaps of food and presents, and no worry about bills and layoffs - and how incredibly unusual!). I do join with those who mostly dread the season, - because i am feeling the "need' to create something that isn't in my means to do - but I take heart from humor. It lets you back away and see the absurdities in our lives. If you really cannot laugh anymore at all - get help. You are probably depressed - not sad, but depressed ( it's my own red flag - if I can't laugh - I'm in trouble). I too would like to see how the elves are going to care for Santa!

over 6 years, said...

I must say I am disappointed that people can't look at this article for what it is. I, too, am dealing with a parent who is into the last stage of Alzheimer's but I am not going to give up my sense of humor. There are days it is very difficult to find something to laugh about or to be happy about but I will always try to find the good in something and not deliberately look for negative things. I believe that my mom would not want me to sit around saying, "Poor me. Mom has Alzheimer's." Not that Anonymous(es) are doing so. It's just that you say you are struggling and dreading the upcoming season. Instead, look at it this way. You are PRIVILEGED to take care of your dad (no matter how difficult) and make this a holiday he would have enjoyed. I have decorated my mom's room and brought out the Christmas sweaters and shirts for her. She probably couldn't care less now but I will still try to make it a good holiday for her and, who knows WHAT she may understand in the long run. She smiled and thanked me after I got through, so....

over 6 years, said...

It made me laugh and isn't laughter such a good medicine??!!!!?!?!??

over 6 years, said...

I applaud the author of this humorously written article. We all need to lighten up just a bit instead of taking the role of martyrdom so seriously. It is quite unlikely that a young child would take the time to read something this long and clinical. And if a someone as young as seven or eight would read it from start to finish, it is likely that he/she already has doubts about the existence of Santa Claus. If a teenager took the time to read the story, they might actually learn something. We all like to learn through various styles of written materials. I like to read stories with tasteful humor and I felt this one really made the mark. I am co-caring for our mother with Alzheimers and I might actually use a few of these analogies as we try to enjoy the next couple of weeks of holiday activities. I will tell her she is a lot like Santa and I think she will like that.

over 6 years, said...

In reply to the anonymous fence sitter, thanks for understanding. I'm neither a Scrooge nor a Grinch, but at this time of year I can't help but go back to a time when the tables were loaded with food, so many presents around we could barely walk through the room, and I even remember the intense excitement of going to bed on the 24th knowing Santa was coming. Now? Not so much. We will, as always, do our very best to make this a celebration, but I know my father is terribly sad and misses my Mom even though he won't talk about it. Every person on this site knows how profoundly exhausting caregiving is at a normal time of year, and how it's extra hard at this time of year. I thank you for your analogy about Santa have AIDS, or Santa having terminal cancer. Just leave him alone.

over 6 years, said...

I really liked this article. It combined the truth with a funny way to associated reality. It tells you the truth, but makes you laugh and/or smile at the same time. Clever, light, and different. Thanks for making me look my every day situations in a new and jovial perspective. Gracias!

over 6 years, said...

You forgot to mention another risk factor: The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.....

over 6 years, said...

I'm on the fence with this. I'm in a similar situation as the man who is caring for his father - I'm juggling working full-time and caring for my mother (in other words, I work 24/7). If the elves are good at caregiving, Mrs. Claus will be a lucky woman. My mother has always had, and still has, a lively sense of humor. Sometimes we joke about some of the odd things she comes up with, and sometimes I let myself see the humor in our experiences, because it helps me stay sane. Still, I wonder if an article on "7 Signs that Santa has AIDS" or "7 Signs that Santa has Terminal Cancer" would be considered appropriate topics for a "funny" article. Alzheimer's is a terminal, progressive, degenerative condition that erodes and potentially destroys the patient's quality of life, not to mention what it does to the life of the family member who takes on the responsibility of caregiving. Christmas is a time when you especially struggle to find joy in the season, and wonder what your loved one will even be aware of about the holiday next year. So a Christmas Alzheimer's joke? I think it's slightly over the line into being a bad idea.

over 6 years, said...

It won't surprise me if his article bothers some readers because, of course, Alzheimers is a serious and painful condition; one might say, especially at the holidays. Still, laughter is a medicine and always has been. I enjoyed the article and admired the way the writer wove key information throughout. For many, I suspect it will be helpful and fun in a time that is often stressful.

over 6 years, said...

combines humor with helpful information.

over 6 years, said...

Thanks for the blog, Paula. It's humorous, but educational at the same time. It seems possible that Santa is going to need some home health care some time in the future. I think he is making it OK right now, though.

over 6 years, said...

As an adult son who is struggling to care for a Father with Alzheimers and quite frankly dreading the upcoming season, I must say I take offense with this article. While I appreciate the levity you try to bring to a very difficult subject, I can only wonder what a young child would think if the computer was left open to this article. I would rather hold on to the image of Santa Claus I had as a child rather than think of him as a dementia ridden senile old man.