Is It More Than Just Memory Loss?

A geriatrician explains the surprising symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Joshua Shua-Haim, MD
Joshua Shua-Haim, MD

More than 5 million Americans ages 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s disease, which affects memory, thinking, and behavior, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Unfortunately, the number of cases is expected to nearly triple by 2050. Here, Joshua Shua-Haim, MD, a geriatrician at Community Medical Center, explains common symptoms and how the disease is treated.

What are the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease?

In the early (mild) stage of the disease, patients may forget names, misplace objects, have trouble finding words, and ask the same questions over and over. Later, in the “moderate” stage, memory loss and confusion worsen, and patients may wander or have trouble recognizing family members and friends. They may be less aware of their condition and blame others for hiding things they misplaced. They may also appear agitated and aggressive. By the advanced stage of the disease, patients have trouble communicating, walking, and sitting and require assistance with personal care.

What might people be surprised to learn about the disease?

Memory loss isn’t the only symptom. Up to 75 percent of patients are brought to me because of behavior problems. They blame people for stealing their jewelry and hiding the keys to their car. Their caregiver and family might dismiss their memory loss in the beginning stages of the disease because denial is a very common problem.

What types of medications are available to treat Alzheimer’s?

There’s no cure yet, but several medications can help stabilize mental function for a short time—about six months to a year—in some patients. These drugs regulate neurotransmitters, chemicals that carry messages between nerve cells in the brain. Other medications are prescribed to manage behavioral symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.

What’s the best way to care for someone with Alzheimer’s?

It depends on the stage of the disease. In the mild stage, patients can function well at home, especially if they have a spouse or caregiver living with them. In the moderate stage, patients benefit from adult day care programs, which provide socialization and activities in a safe environment. This also gives caregivers a much-needed break and time to take care of their own needs. By the advanced stage, the vast majority of patients require round-the-clock care and medical treatment in a nursing home.

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