More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, a brain disorder that affects memory, thinking and behavior. For those of us who regularly lose our keys, forget meeting times or can't remember where we put the soup ladle, it might seem like we are experiencing the early signs of Alzheimer's. How can you tell the difference between absent-mindedness and Alzheimer's?

What is Alzheimer's?

While it's not known what causes Alzheimer's, it may be related to increasing age, family history and genetics. Over time, this incurable disease leads to nerve cell death and tissue loss in the brain, which reduces brain size and affects the body's functions. If you think of the brain as the body's command center, Alzheimer's is a gradual meltdown of this command center that may take 8 to 20 years.

How it begins

The initial symptoms of Alzheimer's seem innocent enough and are commonly perceived as natural aging. Yet, signs of the disease may be present 20 years or more before someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Symptoms often include:

  • Memory loss

    Forgetting recently learned information.
    What's normal? Occasionally forgetting names or appointments.
  • Difficulty with performing familiar tasks

    Have difficulty planning everyday tasks, lose track of steps involved in preparing a meal or can't remember how to make a phone call.
    What's normal? Sometimes forgetting why you came into a room or what you wanted to say.
  • Problems with language

    Forgetting simple words or substituting unusual words, making speech or writing difficult to understand.
    What's normal? Being at a loss for words once in a while.
  • Disorientation

    Getting lost in one's own neighborhood, forgetting where you are and how you got there.
    What's normal? Forgetting the day of the week or blanking out about where you wanted to go.
  • Decreased judgment

    Dressing inappropriately, wearing several layers of clothing on a warm day or making poor decisions.
    What's normal? Making a questionable decision from time to time.

Helping the mind

Saying outright that one can prevent the onset of Alzheimer's would be misleading. It still stumps researchers today more than a century after it first entered medical journals. Nonetheless, people can take certain steps, with the help of a health care provider, to reduce their risk of Alzheimer's. These include:

  • Lowering cholesterol
  • Decreasing high blood pressure
  • Managing diabetes
  • Exercising regularly
  • Engaging in social or intellectually stimulating activities

Is it aging or something more?

If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, a checkup can help determine if it's aging or the beginning of something more serious.

To find a doctor or speak to a nurse, call Consult-A-Nurse® at (951) 788-3463, 24 hours a day.