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How to Spot the Early Stages of Alzheimer's

An estimated 4 million Americans are afflicted with memory-robbing Alzheimer's disease. While there is no cure, an early diagnosis and medication can delay the most debilitating symptoms. Here with some tips on detecting early stage Alzheimer's is Dr. Bernadine Healy. She is a CBS News health contributor and president of the American Red Cross.

Are certain people more at risk of developing Alzheimer's?

If Alzheimer's runs in your family, it is a good idea to get screened for genes linked to the disease. If you know you are susceptible, you can begin making changes right away.

Why is early detection important?

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease. In fact, many people call it the "long goodbye." A diagnosis is very scary, but the sooner one is made, the sooner someone can begin taking medications. There are several now on the market, including Aricept, Exelon, and Reminyl. However, none of these medications will completely stop or reverse the effects of Alzheimer's. Doctors can also prescribe medications to treat the side effects many people experience, including depression.

What are some of the most common changes in people with early stage Alzheimer's?

  • Memory loss--This is the most common warning sign. It's important to remember that we will all at one time or another forget an appointment, name, or phone number. But a person with Alzheimer's will forget these things more often and will not remember them later.
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks--People with dementia often find it hard to complete everyday tasks that most of us don't even think about while we're doing them. For example, a person with Alzheimer's may forget the steps for preparing a meal or how to use a common household appliance.
  • Disorientation to time & place--At one time or another we are all guilty of forgetting the day of the week or where we are going. Someone with Alzheimer's, however, can get lost on their own street and forget where they are, how they got there, and how to get back home. This symptom is particularly scary, which is why it's recommended that people with Alzheimer's wear ID bracelets.
  • Poor or decreased judgment--A person with Alzheimer's may dress without regard to the weather, wearing several layers on a hot day. They may also show poor judgment when it comes to money. Some Alzheimer's patients have been known to give away large amounts of money to a telemarketer or to pay for home repairs that aren't needed.
  • Changes in mood--We all become sad or lonely from time to time. But people with Alzheimer's can experience rapid mood changes. They can go from being calm, to being in tears, to being angry, for no apparent reason.
  • Changes in personality--Everyone's personality has been known to change slightly with age. The difference in someone with Alzheimer's is that these changes are extreme. A person can become extremely confused, suspicios, fearful, or dependent.

What's the next step after a diagnosis is made?

People need to get on medications like the ones I mentioned earlier as soon as possible. There is also evidence they can do things on their own to slow down dementia--such as keeping your mind busy and interacting with family and friends.

What should a caregiver do after a diagnosis is made?

You need to educate yourself. Find out as much as you can about the disease. Consider joining a support group where you can talk with people who are going through the same situation as you. It is also important to accept help when it's offered and to ask for it if you are feeling overwhelmed. You may even consider seeing a doctor yourself. There is evidence of depression among those people who care for Alzheimer's patients

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