Do Caregivers Delay the Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease?
Families may overlook cognitive and behavioral changes that could mean a loved one has Alzheimer's disease.
While at present there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease, early diagnosis allows patients and families to take advantage of treatment, including behavioral counseling and training, support groups, memory care programs, and medications that may alleviate symptoms and possibly slow the progression of the disease. Early diagnosis also allows families to plan ahead for their loved one's care, financial needs and living situation.
Yet families may not recognize the early signs of Alzheimer's disease. The disease sometimes progresses slowly, with patient and families making adjustments to changes without really thinking about it. They may erroneously believe that severe memory loss is the only symptom of concern. They may misinterpret the meaning of common behavioral changes of Alzheimer's—for example, attributing irritability and negativity to the idea that Dad is becoming a "crabby old man." And of course, they may be in denial, preferring to turn a blind eye to the problem.
A recent study from the Alzheimer's Foundation of America (AFA) also found that many people incorrectly believe that memory loss in later years is just a fact of life. The survey, titled "Alzheimer's Caregivers: Behavioral vs. Cognitive Challenges," reported that family members often interpret some of the behavioral changes of Alzheimer's disease, such as irritability, sleep problems, anxiety and confusion, as a normal part of aging.
These false impressions can cause a delay in having their loved one evaluated for the possibility of Alzheimer's or a related disorder. Two-thirds of the family members surveyed said that until the healthcare provider suggested otherwise, they assumed their loved one's memory and thinking changes were merely part of aging. They were even less likely to report and be concerned about personality changes and troubling behaviors.
AFA President and CEO Eric C. Hall said, "The survey findings sound a loud wake-up call that we must address this public health crisis and reinforce that education and early detection must be among the nation’s key strategies in tackling it. Families can't afford missed opportunities for help that can result from a timely and proper diagnosis."
What Are the Warning Signs of Alzheimer's Disease?
The National Institutes of Health's Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center says that these signs mean that a person should be evaluated for the possibility of Alzheimer's disease:
- Difficulty remembering things.
- Asking the same questions over and over.
- Having trouble paying bills or solving simple math problems.
- Getting lost.
- Losing things or putting them in odd places.
- Being confused about time, people and places.
- Forgetting the names of common things.
These signs do not necessarily mean a person has Alzheimer's disease. A number of other medical conditions and even the side effects of medications can cause confusion and memory problems. In many cases, these problems are treatable. Even when the diagnosis is Alzheimer's, early detection is important to allow people with the disease and their families to make decisions, locate resources, manage stress and access the best possible treatment options.
The Alzheimer's Foundation of America offers information for family caregivers, including the "Alzheimer's Caregivers: Behavioral vs. Cognitive Challenges" study referenced in this article.
See "Understanding Alzheimer's Disease" on the National Institute on Aging website for more information about the signs of Alzheimer's and how it is diagnosed.