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Normal Aging or Alzheimer's Disease?

In part three of our series, "Alzheimer's: A National Crisis," CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton discussed how you can distinguish between normal signs of aging -- what we jokingly call "senior moments" -- and the serious symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.

Ashton noted 5.3 million people have Alzheimer's. Citing the the Alzheimer's Association, Ashton said the disease costs $172 billion in annual costs and is the seventh leading cause of death, which has increased 46.1 percent from 2000 to 2006.

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So how do you know what is normal and what isn't?

Ashton said all people may forget every now and then, but forgetting recently learned information is not normal.

She explained, "If you sometimes forget names or appointments, but remember them after the fact, that's a 'senior moment.' But, memory loss that disrupts daily life is not normal and is a early warning sign. If you find your loved one is heavily reliant on memory aids or family members for remembering names, daily activities or locations they used to know -- or are repetitive in their forgetfulness, for example, asking for the same information over and over -- then you should look for other signs and talk to a doctor."

Ashton said early detection is "so important." She said it allows the individual and their family time to make choices that maximize quality of life, and improve their chances of benefiting from treatment.

Ashton pointed out these symptoms of Alzheimer's:

Being confused about what day it is -- but figuring it out later -- is normal of aging. Just because you can't remember if it's Tuesday or Wednesday doesn't mean you have Alzheimer's. For people with Alzheimer's, it can be deeper than that. There's confusion with time and place. They lose track of dates and seasons. They may forget where they are or how they got there -- that is NOT a normal sign of aging.

Rest assured: Just because you don't know where the remote control is does not mean you have Alzheimer's. Chalk that up as a "senior moment." That is a normal sign of aging. However, a person with Alzheimer's will lose their things and can't recover their steps to even find it. They may accuse others of stealing an item because they are frustrated and unable to accept that they don't know where it is. A loved one may end up finding the lost item in an unusual place.

This symptom of misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps may signal that a person is in stage two or stage three of the disease, showing very mild to mild cognitive decline.

It's normal to grasp for the right word -- we all can forget. But people with Alzheimer's might repeatedly have problems finding the right word -- they may call items by the wrong name. If you notice a person having trouble following or joining a conversation, having new problems with words, it may mean something more and you should take them to see the doctor. Remember, there is not one type of doctor that specializes in diagnosing this disease. You may first see your primary care doctor and they may refer you to a neurologist or a psychiatrist or psychologist who has training in testing memory and concentration.

If you notice:
Challenges in planning or solving problems
Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
Decreased or poor judgment
Withdrawal from work or social activities
Changes in mood and personality

When seeing your doctor, Ashton said people should be prepared to tell them:
Symptoms you have noticed
When they began
Frequency (How often do symptoms happen?)
Level of deterioration -- have they gotten worse? Are they stable?

For more information on Alzheimer's, go to the Alzheimer's Association website.

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