Thank you for your question. First, let’s look at the official criteria for a diagnosis of dementia, Alzheimer's type. They are as follows:
A. The development of multiple cognitive deficits manifested by both (1) memory impairment (impaired ability to learn new information or to recall previously learned information) (2) one (or more) of the following cognitive disturbances:
(a) aphasia (language disturbance)
(b) apraxia (impaired ability to carry out motor activities despite intact motor function)
(c) agnosia (failure to recognize or identify objects despite intact sensory function)
(d) disturbance in executive functioning (i.e., planning, organizing, sequencing, abstracting)
B. The cognitive deficits in Criteria A1 and A2 each cause significant impairment in social or occupational functioning and represent a significant decline from a previous level of functioning.
C. The course is characterized by gradual onset and continuing cognitive decline.
D. The cognitive deficits in Criteria A1 and A2 are not due to any of the following:
(1) other central nervous system conditions that cause progressive deficits in memory and cognition (e.g., cerebrovascular disease, Parkinson's Disease, Huntington's Disease, subdural hematoma, normal-pressure hydrocephalus, brain tumor)
(2) systemic conditions that are known to cause dementia (e.g., hypothyroidism, vitamin B or folic acid deficiency, niacin deficiency, hypercalcemia, neurosyphilis, HIV infection)
(3) substance-induced conditions
E. The deficits do not occur exclusively during the course of a delirium.
F. The disturbance is not better accounted for by another Axis I disorder (e.g., Major Depressive Episode, Schizophrenia).
As a general rule, the onset of Alzheimer's is characterized by the loss of a cognitive ability one once had. Typically, in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's, one loses the ability to remember things just learned. Oftentimes, this is indicated by one's inability to recall something they just read, inability to remember to pay bills, difficulty recalling how to balance a checkbook, and so on. The key difference between short-term memory loss associated with age and short-term memory loss associated with Alzheimer's is this: an older person can still recall information from their short-term memory when given a cue or reminder whereas an individual with early Alzheimer's has difficulty remembering even with a cue.
With regard to tasks, those requiring more complex cognitive abilities are increasingly difficult for those in the early stages of Alzheimer's.
One note about aphasia as described in the criteria above: aphasia typically involves a decreasing vocabulary and language fluency. This means that in the early stages, it is often difficult for an individual with Alzheimer's to find words to express themselves.
The most important thing you can do is to get a complete evaluation and assessment. Alzheimer's has become a catchall diagnosis for many types of dementia and memory loss. For example, the following conditions can create symptoms similar to Alzheimer's: anemia, depression, infection, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, certain vitamin deficiencies, thyroid abnormalities, and diseases of the heart, blood vessels and lungs. A proper diagnosis is imperative.
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