Another factor that makes early Alzheimer’s Disease difficult to detect is the presence of other conditions. Often, Alzheimer’s Disease coexists with other health problems that can mimic or resemble Alzheimer’s. Many times, it’s easy to dismiss the signs of Alzheimer’s Disease as one of these other health problems or to assume the person has Alzheimer’s when it’s really one of these other conditions.
An occasional case of the blues is normal for almost everyone. But some people may feel sad all the time, which is a sign of depression, a serious mental illness that warrants medical attention.
In early Alzheimer’s Disease, depression is very common. In fact, it may even be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s. According to a seven-year study of Catholic clergy aged 65 and older, those who reported more depressive symptoms were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s.
Even if you don’t have depression, it’s very likely that you will become depressed as the condition progresses, and you become increasingly aware of your diminishing capabilities. You may feel anger, frustration, and helplessness as you struggle to cope with your eroding memory and cognitive abilities. These emotions easily give way to feelings of sadness, and depression may set in.
Because the symptoms of depression are so similar to those for early Alzheimer’s, it’s often difficult to distinguish one from the other or to determine whether the person has both conditions, hi addition, the person with Alzheimer’s Disease who also has depression may have trouble accurately expressing himself and describing his emotional state.
But distinguishing depression from Alzheimer’s is important, even if both conditions are present. Treatments for depression can alleviate the sadness, and can even improve the quality of life, even if someone does have both Alzheimer’s and depression.
So how do you detect depression in a person with early Alzheimer’s? According to the Mayo Clinic, if someone displays one of the first two symptoms on this list, along with at least two others, he or she may be depressed:
• Significantly depressed mood, including sadness, hopelessness, discouragement and tearfulness.
• Reduced pleasure in or response to social contacts and usual activities.
• Social isolation or withdrawal.
• Sleeping too much or too little.
• Agitation or lethargy.
• Fatigue or loss of energy.
• Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt.
• Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
In people who have Alzheimer’s, these symptoms are slightly dif-ferent than they are in those without Alzheimer’s Disease. In general, the symptoms of depression are less severe in people with Alzheimer’s Disease, and the episodes of depression do not last as long or recur as frequendy There is also less likely to be discussion of suicide or attempts at suicide. The key is to identify depression and to treat it as soon as possible.
As many as 70 percent of people with Alzheimer’s also suffer from anxiety, a condition characterized by persistent distress. A certain amount of anxiety is normal, and everyone responds to stressful situations with some distress. You may for instance, have anxiety over an upcoming exam, a marital problem, or landing a new job. But when you become excessively anxious about everyday situa¬tions, it is considered a disorder.
In people with early Alzheimer’s, anxiety may be related to changes in the brain. It may be a result of the stress you experience from not being able to recall familiar facts or your inability to carry on a meaningful conversation. Not surprisingly then, these changes can cause distress. Anxiety also frequently coexists with depression, and may even resemble depression. Both conditions are characterized by irritability, anger, restlessness, agitation, and insomnia. The good news is, treating anxiety, like depression, can help alleviate these symptoms. Often, the same medications used to treat depression can be used to treat anxiety.
Though sleep disruptions are more common in later stages of the disease, a person with early Alzheimer’s may also experience prob¬lems with sleeping. Sleep disturbances result from damage to the brain’s internal clock, so that the person with Alzheimer’s Disease is sleepy during die day and awake at night. In addition, sleep problems are com¬mon in older adults and in people suffering from depression or anxiety. Among the conditions that may affect your sleep are in¬somnia, which refers to difficulty falling or staying asleep, restless leg syndrome, a condition in which the legs have an over¬whelming urge for movement, and sleep apnea, a condition characterized by brief interruptions in a person’s breathing while sleeping.
Like any disease, Alzheimer’s reveals itself in various signs and symptoms that you and your loved ones must observe and report. But recognizing these signs and symptoms isn’t easy. To the per¬son experiencing Alzheimer’s, it may be too shameful to admit these cognitive deficits, especially if you’ve always prided your¬self on your intellect. Or, it may be difficult to find the right words to describe the problem, given the memory loss and loss of language skills.
For loved ones, it may be hard to realize that anything serious is wrong. The signs of disease can be fleeting and inconsistent. For instance, one day your mother may forget she spoke to you an hour earlier. The next day, she may recite to you everything she ate for dinner the night before.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that many people with early Alzheimer’s work hard to hide their diminished abilities. They may tell you they don’t want to take a trip because they don’t enjoy traveling anymore when in fact, they’re terrified about leaving fa¬miliar surroundings. As a result, it may be years before it becomes apparent that something is actually wrong.
But detecting the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease is important for your health. Getting diagnosed while the disease is in its early stages will help you adapt to having Alzheimer’s before the disease enters its more challenging stages. It will also give you the time to make critical decisions about your care in the future. Best of all, it can help you develop strategies for slowing the progress of your condition.