Every 65 seconds, someone in the United States develops this progressive brain disorder. Here are smart ways to judge whether you (or someone you love) might be one of them.

By Lynya Floyd
Photo by Getty Images

Let’s get one thing straight: Alzheimer’s Disease doesn’t only happen to grandparents in their 70s. It’s true: the majority of 5.5 million people with this illness that causes memory loss and decreased cognitive abilities are over the age of 65. But five percent of people who get Alzheimer’s are in their 30s, 40s or 50s.

“We hear women saying, ‘My husband was eventually diagnosed but at first doctors thought it was just a midlife crisis,’” says Molly Fogel, LCSW, Director of Educational and Social Services at the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. It’s important to notice and immediately act on any behavioral changes in your spouse, parents or yourself. Early detection of Alzheimer’s leads to more effective treatment. So, the sooner you’re diagnosed, the better. Every person will experience symptoms differently, but there are a few key signs you should be aware of:

1. Memory loss

Struggling to remember what you walked into the living room to grab? Don’t panic. “We all have those days when we call our kid our cat’s name, for example,” Fogel says. “But when it becomes a pattern it’s potentially problematic. If each day I find I have difficulty remembering my children’s names, it’s time to talk to my doctor.” You’ll also want to ask your doctor if the problem might be something else. Memory loss can be related to many different health concerns like stroke, B12 deficiency, hypothyroidism, a severe infection and even depression.

2. Confusion of time and place

If today you get in your car and start driving to your office—but you’re supposed to be going to the supermarket—it’s not the end of the world. “Sometimes we fall into patterns, but this isn’t a disruption in daily functioning,” Fogel says. If every day or frequently you have moments where you can’t remember where you are or how you got there, that’s different.

3. Difficulty performing familiar tasks

Most of us don’t give a second thought to the kind of routine movements we perform in a given day: getting dressed, making breakfast, getting dressed while making breakfast. But a person living with dementia will have memory loss that occurs on a regular basis and disrupts their ability to perform these basic tasks.

4. Decreased or poor judgment

If Mom suddenly doesn’t want to decide where to go for her birthday dinner or Dad tries to brush off the fact that he made a U-turn on a one-way street, pay attention. When you have dementia, you may find yourself making bad choices. “I might go outside without my winter jacket on in December,” Fogel says. “It can be as extreme as driving on the wrong side of the road or drinking spoiled milk and not realizing it.” Once that happens, you may decide to shy away from making any choices at all. Partners and family members may notice their loved one becoming quieter and letting someone else make all the decisions in the family.

5. Problems with abstract thinking

Someone might go into the bathroom and not know how to get the water to come out of the faucet. As a result, they might stop washing up or using the shower because they’re not sure how to get it to work—but they don’t want to admit it. It could also be trouble with basic math (checkbook not adding up?) or following a recipe (dinner tasted off?).

6. Changes in mood and personality

“Maybe mom was always the life of the party and now she’s not going to her garden parties as much. That’s a change in personality to be aware of,” Fogel says. You should also watch for rapid flares in temper. We all have times when we’re in a bad mood—but someone with dementia can go from calm to heated in a flash.

If you’ve noticed any of these signs in yourself or a loved one, make an appointment with a doctor or a specialist and start educating yourself on the disease. You can also call the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’s national toll-free helpline to get connected with services, have your questions answered and find support. It’s staffed by licensed social workers and open every day of the week at 866-232-8484. You can also reach out through their website.