You’re probably familiar with the most common symptoms that may point to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and some other types of dementia:
- Memory loss, especially being unable to remember newly learned information and asking the same questions over and over
- Trouble planning or problem solving
- Problems completing familiar tasks such as driving to the store or paying bills
- Confusion about time or place
- New problems speaking or writing
- Losing the ability to retrace your steps to find a misplaced object
- Problems with judgement or decision making
- Withdrawal from social interactions
What you may not know, however, is that researchers have found a number of other subtle symptoms that may indicate that you’re at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia or may be in the earliest stages of the disease. These signs and symptoms include:
- Failing sense of smell: A recent small study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital uncovered an association between a declining ability to recognize, remember, and distinguish between smells and an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that this neurodegenerative symptom was present 10 years before memory related symptoms developed. A previous study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota also found a link between a failing sense of smell and an increased risk of mild cognitive decline. In that study, participants who already had memory problems and had a failing sense of smell were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
- Sleep disorders: More than 80% of older men with a sleep disorder known as rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD) went on to develop a neurodegenerative condition, including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, and Parkinson’s disease, in a small study. Other researchers are exploring the relationship between the disruption of the circadian clock, sleep disorders, and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Previously, it was believed that sleep problems in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s were caused by the disease, but new research suggests that some sleep disorders may in fact contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Frequent falls: Elderly study participants who fell more frequently and at a younger age during a year-long study had higher levels of biomarkers that indicate an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s. The falls preceded clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as memory loss and mood changes.
- Over-reacting to minor problems: People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease may react catastrophically to minor problems, shouting, crying inconsolably, pacing in an agitated way, or even striking out physically.
- New diagnosis of depression or anxiety: Researchers at the Washington University School of medicine discovered an association between developing depression or anxiety after age 50 and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. In the study, which included data on more than 2,500 people age 50 or older who had no signs of cognitive problems at the start of the research, the risk of depression increased as the participants got older. But the participants who later developed dementia were more likely to experience depression or anxiety symptoms sooner than those who did not develop dementia.
If you or a loved one is experiencing any new or unusual mental or physical changes, talk with your doctor who will recommend the appropriate assessments and diagnostic tests. A personal health advisor can also be a good resource, providing connections to specialists in cognitive conditions and the latest research on neurocognitive diseases and treatments and steps you can take that may lower your risk.