Occasional forgetfulness can be a natural part of aging, but certain types of confusion may signal the onset of cognitive decline. Forgetting where you put your wallet, for example, is completely normal—but if you forget what your wallet is for, that’s a red flag. It’s not just aspects of brain health like memory that are affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, however. Changes in personality are always worth paying attention to, and one shift in particular may signal the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Read on to find out what it is.
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“As we age, our brains change, but Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are not an inevitable part of aging,” reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Normal brain aging may mean slower processing speeds and more trouble multitasking, but routine memory, skills, and knowledge are stable and may even improve with age.”
“People often exhibit warning signs that they may be developing some form of dementia,” explains Ryan Majchrzak, Owner and Certified Senior Advisor at Assisted Living Locators. Majchrzak advises that an initial sign can be memory loss that disrupts daily life. “People may forget recently learned information or important dates/events,” he says. “They may also repeat the same questions and increasingly rely on memory aids [like sticky notes].”
“Other signs include challenges in planning or problem-solving and difficulty completing familiar tasks,” says Majchrzak, who also notes that the inability to retrace one’s steps, confusion with time and place, misplacing things, or putting objects in locations that are not typical , such as placing car keys in the refrigerator, are also all potential warning signs of the onset of cognitive decline. However, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can manifest as changes in a person’s personality or disposition.
“Alzheimer’s disease causes brain cells to die, so the brain works less well over time,” explains the National Institute on Aging (NIH). “This changes how a person acts.” While many people associate these changes with the more commonly known symptoms of memory loss or confusion, the NIH cautions that symptoms of dementia can also be expressed emotionally, such as “getting upset, worried, and angry more easily; hiding things or believing other people are hiding thing; [and] showing unusual sexual behavior.”
“You also may notice that the person stops caring about how he or she looks, stops bathing, and wants to wear the same clothes every day,” notes the NIH. This relates to another common—but subtle and less widely known—change in personality.
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“People with Alzheimer’s Disease or some other form of dementia can become depressed or apathetic as a result of any or all of the warning signs of dementia,” says Majchrzak. “Some people may experience one or two of these signs, and others may exhibit more, less, or all of them.”
Apathy is defined as a lack of interest, emotion, interest, or concern. “People with dementia often develop apathy due to damage to the frontal lobes of their brain,” as per the Alzheimer’s Society’s website. “This part of the brain controls our motivation, planning, and sequencing of tasks.”
Someone who is experiencing apathy may no longer be interested in previously enjoyed activities or hobbies, and they might appear unemotional or uninvolved when engaging with other people.
“Apathy usually appears early in dementia and tends to persist throughout; it is associated with longer illness duration and it worsens with the progression of dementia,” Rajesh R. TampiMD, wrote in an article for the Psychiatric Times. “Risk factors for developing apathy include older age and greater severity of cognitive impairment.”
The initial development of apathy can then lead to a worsening of the condition. “Lack of social interaction can lead to worsening depression or anxiety,” Majchrzak explains. “When a person loses their ability to hold a conversation in a social setting or perform familiar tasks, they tend to withdraw from these activities. They can become embarrassed that they cannot function like they used to be able to, and become fearful or anxious that they will be judged by others.” When people then stop socializing, this can exacerbate the condition, he warns.
Majchrzak advises that staying socially engaged and stimulated may help reduce the risk of dementia. “There is some research that indicates that connecting with others socially may benefit brain health and may actually delay in the onset of dementia,” he advises.