Worried It's Alzheimer's? 8 Symptoms to Watch For

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Applying the word "Alzheimer's" to someone close to you can be uncomfortable, even if the signs, or symptoms, have been adding up for some time. It's much easier to gloss over strange behavior: "Oh, Mom's just getting older. "Or to rationalize: "Well, we all forget things sometimes."

Only a qualified physician can conclude with high certainty that a living person has Alzheimer's disease. But the following eight symptoms are strongly associated with the disease. If you detect these signs in someone, it would be wise to seek a medical evaluation.

Alzheimer's symptom #1: Memory lapses

  1. Does the person ask repetitive questions or retell stories within minutes of the first mention?
  2. Does he forget the names of recent acquaintances or younger family members, such as grandchildren?
  3. Are memory lapses growing progressively worse (such as affecting information that was previously very well known)?
  4. Are they happening more frequently (several times a day or within short periods of time)?
  5. Is this forgetfulness unusual for the person (such as sudden memory lapses in someone who prided herself on never needing grocery lists or an address book)?

Everyone forgets some things sometimes. But the person may have Alzheimer's disease if you notice these kinds of lapses.

Having problems with memory is the first and foremost symptom noticed. It's a typical Alzheimer's symptom to forget things learned recently (such as the answer to a question, an intention to do something, or a new acquaintance) but to still be able to remember things from the remote past (such as events or people from childhood, sometimes with explicit detail). In time, even long-term memories will be affected. But by then other Alzheimer's symptoms will have appeared.

Alzheimer's symptom #2: Confusion over words

  1. Does the person have difficulty finding the "right" word when he's speaking?
  2. Does she forget or substitute words for everyday things (such as "the cooking thingamajig" for pot or "hair fixer" for comb)?
  3. Of course it's normal for anyone to occasionally "blank" on a word, especially words not often used. But it's considered a red flag for Alzheimer's if this happens with growing frequency and if the needed words are simple or commonplace ones.

This can be a very frustrating experience for the speaker. He may stall during a conversation, fixating on finding a particular word. She may replace the right word with another word. This substitute could be similar enough that you could guess at the meaning ("hair dryer" instead of "hairdresser"), especially early on in the disease process. Or it could be completely different ("bank" instead of "hairdresser") or nonsensical ("hairydoo").

Alzheimer's symptom #3: Marked changes in mood or personality

  1. Is the person who's usually assertive more subdued (or vice versa)? Has the person who's reserved become less inhibited (or vice versa)?
  2. Does she withdraw, even from family and friends, perhaps in response to problems with memory or communication?
  3. Has he developed mood swings, anxiety, or frustration, especially in connection with embarrassing memory lapses or noticeable communication problems?
  4. Has she developed uncharacteristic fears of new or unknown environments or situations, or developed a distrust of others, whether strangers or familiar people?
  5. Do you see signs of depression (including changes in sleep, appetite, mood)?

Mood shifts are a difficult sign to link decisively to Alzheimer's disease because age and any medical condition may spark changes in someone's mood, personality, or behavior. In combination with other Alzheimer's symptoms, however, changes such as those described above may contribute to a suspicion of the disease.

A person with Alzheimer's may also become restless and/or aggressive, but usually in later stages of the disease.

Alzheimer's symptom #4: Trouble with abstract thinking

  1. How well does the person handle relatively simple mathematical tasks, such as balancing a checkbook?
  2. Is he having trouble paying bills or keeping finances in order, tasks he previously had no problem completing?
  3. Does she have trouble following along with a discussion, understanding an explanation, or following instructions?

Abstract thinking becomes increasingly challenging for someone with Alzheimer's, especially if the topic is complex or if the reasoning is sequential or related to cause and effect.

Alzheimer's symptom #5: Difficulty completing familiar activities

  1. Has the person begun to have trouble preparing meals?
  2. Is she less engaged in a hobby that once absorbed her (bridge, painting, crossword puzzles)?
  3. Does he stop in the middle of a project, such as baking or making a repair, and fail to complete it?
  4. Has she stopped using a particular talent or skill that once gave her pleasure (sewing, singing, playing the piano)?
  5. Activities with various different steps, however routine and familiar, can become difficult to complete for a person with Alzheimer's. Your parent might become distracted or lose track of where he is in the process, feeling confused. Or he might just lose interest altogether and leave a project unfinished.

Alzheimer's or some other form of dementia is especially suspect when the difficult or abandoned activity is something the person formerly delighted in and excelled at, or used to engage in frequently.

Alzheimer's symptom #6: Disorientation

  1. Has the person begun to be disoriented in new or unfamiliar environments (such as a hospital or airport), asking where he is, how he got there, or how to get back to a place he recognizes?
  2. Has she become disoriented in an environment she knows well?
  3. Does he wander off and get lost in public (or get lost when driving or after parking)?
  4. Does she lose track of the time, day, month, or year? For example, after being reminded about a future doctor's appointment over the phone, she may start getting ready for the appointment right away. Or she may have trouble keeping appointments and remembering other events or commitments.

These examples of disorientation are all typical Alzheimer's symptoms, more so in later stages of the disease but sometimes early on as well.

Alzheimer's symptom #7: Misplacing items

  1. Does the person "lose" items often?
  2. Do they turn up in unusual places (such as finding a wallet in the freezer)?

Losing track of glasses, keys, and papers happens to most adults sometimes, whether due to age or just a busy lifestyle. However, it may be a symptom of Alzheimer's if this behavior escalates and if items are sometimes stored in inappropriate or unusual places, and your parent doesn't remember having put them there.

Alzheimer's symptom #8: Poor or impaired judgment

  1. Has the person recently made questionable decisions about money management?
  2. Has he made odd choices regarding self-care (such as dressing inappropriately for the weather or neglecting to bathe)?
  3. Is it hard for her to plan ahead (such as figuring out what groceries are needed or where to spend a holiday)?

Difficulty with decision-making can be related to other possible symptoms of Alzheimer's, such as lapses in memory, personality changes, and trouble with abstract thinking. Inappropriate choices are an especially worrisome sign, as your parent may make unsound decisions about his safety, health, or finances.

Many of these Alzheimer's symptoms go unnoticed for a long time. That's because they're often subtle or well concealed by the person (or a spouse), who may be understandably freaked out by the changes he's noticing in his own behavior. Some patterns of behavior take time to make themselves obvious.

If you suspect Alzheimer's, keep track of what you're noticing. Ask others who know your loved one what they think. Encourage the person to see a doctor.

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

about 1 year, said...

Many mild symptoms listed are similar to depression and prei-menopause. How do you know when to be concerned that it is neurological?

about 1 year, said...

I've been the primary caregiver for my mother for the last 5 years . She was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease over 10 years ago. I would like to add 9. "hoarding". Amassing numerous of the same items. When I moved into her home and cleaned out her cabinets , I found 24 cans of crushed pineapple , 7 opened jars of salsa, 8 rolls of aluminum foil , 6 extra large jugs of dish washing soap, a frozen turkey that was expired by 6 years, and numerous packages of patriotic paper napkins. I lived away and was able to visit only every 6 months . My one sibling who lived nearby denied she had problems . And 10. Accusatory . My mother accuses me of stealing her "pretty things" i.e. brick-a-brack, every time I move them to dust them. It got so bad I've stopped dusting them. 11. She also doesn't believe me when I try to tell her she needs to eat. She loosing the ability to recognize hunger and can't remember when she last ate.

about 1 year, said...

My 71 year old husband's personal hygiene is in the toilet. He rarely bathes or brushes his teeth. He is refusing to shave, trim his nose or ear hair or even get a hair cut. He looks like he lives on the streets. He resents any requests to change. Is this a part of Alzheimer's or is it dementia? This has progressed over a period of a year to where he is now.

about 1 year, said...

Not all of those symptoms are solely due to Alzheimer's. My father is 84 years old and has asked repetitive questions ever since I've known him. He does not have Alzheimer's. He simply just doesn't listen to the answers the first time. I have forgotten items on my grocery list while leaving the store. Being menopausal and anxiety ridden, some of the above symptoms can be attributed to that. Check with actual medical personnel before you tout your product. Thank you.

over 1 year, said...

I am caregiver for my husband, of over 54 years, and he is in the middle of stage #6.....is now starting to forget people and family members, and their relationship to him....has lost interest in ability to enjoy all the things we have done over the years....playing cards, games, reading, tv shows and movies, taking excursions, etc...and now he wants to sleep most of his nights and days away....he will be 87 on his next birthday soon, and since he is in the mid #6 stage I have decided to let him do what he is comfortable with...unfortunately it leaves me lonely and missing our great times together....

about 2 years, said...

xfrustratedx, I am so sorry to hear how your brother has isolated your mother, and it is important that you find out what is going on with her will and money, too. You must speak to an attorney who specializes in elderlaw. Maybe you can ask a friend with older parents which attorney they use. Otherwise, just type "elderlaw attorney" into a Google search, along with the name of your city. If you make a few calls, some attorneys will speak to you briefly over the phone. Others will only speak with you in person for a fee. Make a few calls to find someone you feel comfortable with. Also, Google "Adult Protective Services" or "Office of Aging" along with the name of your city, and they may help with what sounds like a possible case of elder abuse. I am so sorry about your situation, andI hope you are able to see your mother again (though I'll bet you are right there in her heart always).

about 2 years, said...

My mother is on the 8th stage you have listed above. My brother has made this worse by isolating her completely from the outside world and not allowing anyone to visit or call her. It has been two years since I saw her along with her two brothers and grandchildren and church members and friends. I have a trust fund that my Mother gave me monthly to care for myself and children, he has taken that and will not let me see a copy of the will or anything that has to do with my Mother. He has cut me off completely from seeing or knowing anything about her, is this legal? is it hurting her more and progressing this disease farther by thinking everyone has abandoned her or doesn't care? Doesn't he need to file some type of papers when she was marked medically incompetent to care for her and pay her bills for her? He has no power of attorney and he is one of two of us as her children, don't I have some say with her and her care and future? Pls if you know the answers to any of this or comments to are appreciated, I don't know what to do anymore =(

about 2 years, said...

We live in berlin, md,21811. Where is the best place to take my 76 year old wife for testing for Alzheimer's Disease ?

about 2 years, said...

Husband had a stroke 7 years ago snd refuses to try to get better. Laughs and cusses at me. Only to me

over 2 years, said...

is Alzheimer passed on from generation to generation

over 2 years, said...

I do forget alot

over 2 years, said...


over 2 years, said...

boy was this web site a big waste of time! I was interested in a list of early alzheimer's symptoms, not in clicking through web page after web page of nearly useless information (useless because most of it is obvious, "memory lapses" -- gee, how informative!). In the time it took to go from page-1 to page-2 on could have read all the symptoms if presented in a single page listing. So long! There are many better ways to waste one's time on the Internet!

over 2 years, said...

My mom and her sister had dementia. Her sister started with dementia in her late 60's and my mom started in her late 70's. I worry all of the time that I will be next. I feel like sometimes I dwell too much on it and scare myself over stupid things I do. My mom was very mean, her sister not at all. I just hope if I do get it that I am a nice person and not mean.

over 2 years, said...

Having worked in an Alzheimer's Unit and talking with families, the common denominator they experienced first was paranoia. The adult children would be devastated to have their parent accuse them of stealing from them. Dementia is simply forgetfulness, confusion with time and place, but Alzheimers patients display personality changes which progress into abnormal behavior.

over 2 years, said...

Thank you for writing this important article. I lost my father to Alzheimer's in January of 2013. I don't think we are yet able to identify Alzheimer's in the early stages. It's only after the symptoms progress, and we are forced to act, that we can look back and see the beginning signs. That is one of the reasons I wrote about my journey with my father's Alzheimer's, in Where Memories Meet - Reclaiming my father after Alzheimer's, on a timeline that moved backwards. Thanks for bringing these symptoms to our attention.