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20 Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer's

My in-laws could participate in many family events and sometimes seemed the same, even in the middle stages of memory loss, but they made poor decisions that endangered their health when they did not have our support.

My in-laws could participate in many family events and sometimes seemed the same, even in the middle stages of memory loss, but they made poor decisions that endangered their health when they did not have our support.

Key Warning Sign: Change

Change is the key warning sign. Ask yourself, "Has the person's ability to remember ordinary daily activities changed from before?"

Are You Worried?

Do you have a history of family members with Alzheimer's? Perhaps you are worried that you or someone you love seems to be forgetting more than usual. I was a caregiver for my husband's mother and father, who both had Alzheimer's, so I understand your emotions, concerns, and fears. It took almost two years for my husband and me to realize that his parents had Alzheimer's and get appropriate help.

During those two years, we struggled to understand all of the changes in his parents and to deal with many difficult situations. Since then, I have carefully researched all of the signs and symptoms of this disease in order to help other people to make sure they get an appropriate diagnosis as early as possible.

In this article, I hope to provide you with enough information to decide if you need to seek additional medical help. I include:

  1. Early warning signs.
  2. Simple, easy memory tests you can give to someone without them necessarily knowing what you are doing.
  3. Explanation of the importance of early detection and what to do about it.
  4. Simple ways to improve cognitive ability (which my husband and I are already doing to help delay any memory impairment we might face).

20 Warning Signs

The key warning sign is change. The earliest symptom of dementia is a weakening in the ability to process information, especially new information. This is a sign we missed in my in-laws, who were completely unable to function after moving from their home in Arizona to a new home near us. The fact that they were not able to remember how to get to the store just down the street and were not able to unpack any of their things should have been a warning sign for us. Here are some other typical warning signs:

  1. Losing sense of smell or taste, or changes in those senses.
  2. Having trouble remembering names more than before.
  3. Losing things like car keys or glasses more often than before.
  4. Forgetting where the car is parked more frequently.
  5. Not being able to remember how to get to a store or friend's house.
  6. Not being able to remember the title of a movie that was just watched.
  7. Substituting a word because the person can't remember the one they wanted.
  8. Forgetting appointments or phone calls more frequently.
  9. Needing to re-read something because they forgot it, or writing lots of reminders (my husband's father had notebooks full of reminders for himself, which made us realize after his diagnosis that he had been dealing with memory loss for several years).
  10. Repeating questions because they forgot the answer.
  11. Having people tell them that they already said that.
  12. Feeling depressed without a particular cause.
  13. Not remembering whether they took medications.
  14. Buying too much of something, or buying things they forgot they already have.
  15. Having more difficulty in organizing events or paperwork.
  16. Finding it more difficult to finish complicated tasks.
  17. Not feeling motivated to finish a project they started.
  18. Being more irritable and less in control of emotions.
  19. Having more trouble learning a new task, like how to use a new phone.
  20. More difficulty in handling finances than before.

Mild Cognitive Impairment

People who answer "yes" to some of the above early warning signs may not have dementia that interferes with daily living, but they may have mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which means they:

  1. Have at least one area of impaired memory function.
  2. Often can continue normal daily living, although close family members may notice a difference in their memory.
  3. Have trouble remembering anything new.
  4. Won't necessarily progress to having Alzheimer's, but have a 10 to 15 times higher chance of developing the disease each year.

Looking at my in-law's financial records and other papers after I became their caretaker, I realized that while Michael and Nicole had managed to live independently in Arizona, they had been having memory troubles for several years. Because of MCI, they had made some erratic financial decisions and also had some medical problems that we did not know about at the time. We wished that we had known about MCI and could have gotten them help earlier and kept them healthier longer.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer's

Dementia is defined as significant memory loss which interferes with daily life. About 70% of people with dementia will eventually be diagnosed with Alzheimer's (which is one of the main causes of memory loss).

What Is Mild Cognitive Impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) was a term coined by Dr. Ron Peterson of the Mayo Clinic to refer to memory impairment which is less than dementia but not quite normal.

  • Dementia is defined as having two areas of impairment which affect daily living.
  • People with mild cognitive impairment may be able to function quite well in normal daily living, but they have enough damage to their brain that they do not function the same as before.

For example, people with MCI might be able to balance a checkbook but would have trouble keeping track of all their finances and bills. They may not be able to keep good records for their taxes or may spend more money than they have in income.

We experienced this problem with my in-laws, who almost gave all of their money away to the Salvation Army several years before we realized they had Alzheimer's. Fortunately, the gentleman they contacted guessed there was a problem with their mental capacity and denied their donation. This gracious man actually spent a great deal of time looking for our contact information in order to let us know about the situation. We were so grateful to him, even though we still didn't realize at that time that they had Alzheimer's.

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Since not every agency would have the integrity of the Salvation Army about donations, it is vital to be alert to any changes in mental functioning that indicate a person is not as capable as they have been previously.

Early diagnosis of memory impairment can allow for drug and behavioral treatments to delay the onset of more serious symptoms.

MCI Memory Test

One easy test is the MCI 10 item objective recall test. This test asks a person to remember 10 new words after waiting for 10 minutes. Most people with normal functioning can remember more than 5. Someone with dementia might not remember any of them, but a person with MCI might remember only 3 or 4. The idea for the test is taken from Gary Small's and Gigi Vorgan's excellent book, The Alzheimer's Prevention Program. Here is how to take the test:

  1. Set a timer for 1 minute.
  2. Memorize the list of ten words for that minute.
  3. Set the timer for 10 minutes and do something else. Surf the web, fold your laundry, or do a few sit-ups.
  4. When the timer goes off, get a paper and pencil and write down as many of the words as you can recall without looking back at the list.


  • Five or more, memory is probably in the normal range.
  • Zero to four: You may want to get a further assessment from a medical professional.

Memory Assessment Test

Pick one of the rows and use the list of 10 unrelated words to test for memory loss. Use a different list or make up one of your own to test again.

Test 1Test 2Test 3




bird bath



cell phone



tennis shoe





















Why MCI Is Important To Measure

MCI might be seen as the brain's equivalent to high blood pressure and high cholesterol. We know that changes in our blood can be invisible symptoms of a potential heart attack and stroke. Similarly, MCI is an invisible symptom of potential memory disease. Like those cardiovascular symptoms we have all been taught to watch out for, MCI is not always noticeable.

Luckily, also like those more familiar symptoms, early discovery of MCI allows for early treatment through lifestyle changes, diet, and medication which can delay the onset of more serious memory problems. Moreover, even if you don't show signs of MCI, making some healthy changes now can help keep your brain healthy.

Moreover, sometimes MCI is actually caused by a medical problem or medication which can be treated to reverse the problem. That was the case with my mother. After having taken care of my in-laws, I was very alert to changes in my mother's mental state and became concerned when she would answer questions in a strange way. Because she had previously had hearing problems and surgery to replace her ear bones, I encouraged her to have her hearing tested. Sure enough, her artificial ear bones had hardened, and she again had a profound hearing loss. When she got hearing aids (and remembered to wear them!), her ability to answer and remember was restored.

We sought to help delay my father-in-law's symptoms by involving him in family activities like this trip to the zoo.

We sought to help delay my father-in-law's symptoms by involving him in family activities like this trip to the zoo.

Why Early Diagnosis Helps

With some memory training, a person with MCI might be able to improve their ability to retain information even though they may not be able to completely recover their previous abilities.

The bad news: Most people are not correctly diagnosed with Alzheimer's or other memory loss problems until they have a crisis. Often, this is four years after the symptoms have first appeared. By that time:

  • Daily life has been disrupted for them and their families.
  • They need considerable help to continue to function.
  • It may be too late to use drugs or other therapies to delay the disease.

The good news: If you pay attention to warning signs which come before a person actually has the disease, you can:

  • Get medical attention to see if the memory loss is caused by something reversible like medications, hearing loss, high blood sugar, or other problem.
  • Practice the steps of delaying further memory loss, which can keep a person independent for longer.
  • Get medical treatment early so that drug therapies which delay dementia work better.
  • Have time to prepare and plan as a family.
 Like many people, we only realized the extent of my in-laws memory problems when they had a crisis while we were on vacation.

Like many people, we only realized the extent of my in-laws memory problems when they had a crisis while we were on vacation.

Lifestyle Changes to Help Memory

Diagnosing early warning signs means you can make lifestyle changes to prevent or delay the onset of severe symptoms. After having been a caretaker of Alzheimer's loved ones, I researched extensively to find out what the best studies said about how lifestyle could affect memory. Two books that I especially liked were: The Alzheimer's Solution, by Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, who offer practical ideas that can help anyone improve their cognitive health; and 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer's and Age-Related Memory Loss by Jean Carper, whose description of her own journey to combat a family history of early-onset Alzheimer's is inspiring and helpful, especially to anyone who also has relatives with this disease.

My husband, who is a biology professor, helped me to evaluate the studies I found, and together we devised a plan for our own lives (I've included some good resources below). Knowing that his parents both had Alzheimer's, my husband is acutely aware of the fact that he may be at risk. Luckily, research suggests that there are things that people can do to delay memory loss. Here are the suggestions we are following, which seemed to us the most overall beneficial for our physical and mental health:

1. Regular Exercise: include aerobic, strength, and balance exercises. Do at least 30 minutes of exercise every day and supplement this with changing your daily habits to:

  • take the stairs rather than the elevator
  • parking further out, so you walk more
  • include gardening, housework, and other chores in your daily activities to make sure you move rather than sitting all day.
  • walk the dog

2. Eat Healthy Foods and Keep At the Correct Weight

  • eat lean meats
  • eat plenty of vegetables and fruits of different colors
  • eat whole grains

3. Strengthen Your Mind:

  • learn memory strategies
  • take a class to learn a new skill
  • play games which involve thinking
  • surf the web to learn something new
  • learn a new language (my husband is working on French and Mandarin)
  • do word puzzles

4. Reduce Your Stress

  • make sure you get enough sleep
  • take time away from work and media and relax
  • take breaks away from the computer to interact with someone in person
  • take a time management class to learn to manage your goals and set priorities
  • talk out your concerns with friends, family, or a therapist if you need one
  • write out your thoughts and concerns in a journal

5. Socialize: People who have an active social network are less likely to have Alzheimer's than those who spend most of their time alone. We are lucky that we have a close network of work and church friends and five children to keep us busy. If you don't have a strong network of social connections, you may want to actively seek out opportunities to spend time with people you already know and to make new friends:

  • join a club
  • volunteer
  • talk to people in line at the store
  • help a neighbor

Our Journey to Prevent Memory Loss

In my own efforts to keep my mind healthy, I've worked hard to lose weight and keep it off by exercising regularly and eating healthy meals. I've also worked to learn Mandarin Chinese since my daughters were adopted from China, and we've traveled there. Furthermore, I keep socially active by helping to run Acteens, a church-based missions organization for young women.

I'd love to hear your own story of caregiving or your tips on keeping your brain active and healthy. Please add your wisdom in the comments below!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 16, 2019:

Hi Paul--You have my sympathy on your journey. I have a variety of other articles on this topic and a few links to books that helped us. I wish I had found some of these books and information earlier. That is why I wrote these articles. I spent a lot of time researching the best information. Blessings to you!

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on August 16, 2019:

Thanks for sharing a very helpful article. My brother-in-law is suffering from the early to mid-stages of Alzheimer's.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on July 07, 2015:

Chantelle--I'm sorry to hear about your father. Be sure to check out my articles about how to help prevent Alzheimer's and how to test for Alzheimer's. I have done a lot of research on this issue because of our concern in our family and wanted to share what took me a long time to learn in a short and simple format to help people get the basics. There are lots of good books to read, but it helps to have the basic information quickly.

Chantelle Porter from Ann Arbor on July 07, 2015:

Very interesting article and timely. My father was diagnosed about 2 years ago with vascular dementia. Now every time I forget something I'm convinced I'm going down his path! LOL. Funny but somewhat scary. it has been quite an ordeal caring for him but so far we are managing. Aticles like yours help.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on February 27, 2013:

Silkekarina--You add an excellent point. On some of my other Alzheimer's Hubs I make this clearer that normal aging does make some slowing of processing which is not in any way related to Alzheimers. At any age, when our lives are stressful or busy, or we haven't had enough sleep or food, we can exhibit forgetfulness. The key is really that the person shows a real change from their usual patterns. Since there are drugs and therapies to help someone who is developing Alzheimers to slow down the progression of the disease, I think it is very helpful to be able to recognize early when it is happening. No one should be put in long term care unless that is necessary for their safety. Both of my in-laws almost died from their own mis-use of drugs, alcohol and abuse of one another which resulted in Alzheimer's making them lose self-control (my mother-in-law ended up with a broken arm, broken hip and overdosed on her anti-depressant drugs). We kept my in-laws in their own home for 2 years, giving them as much help as they needed to stay there even though they had Alzheimer's, but eventually they needed to have full-time medical care and they were much happier after that.

Jean Valerie Kotzur nee Stoneman from Germany on February 27, 2013:

All the warning signs of dementia or alzheimers that you have mentioned, are of course true, but, and this is a big 'but', they can occur at any age, isolated and temporarily, when you are very busy, or if you are thinking about the next task before finishing the one you are doing. I am close to seventy and occasionally I forget where I have put something or I have to ask my daughter, a second time, which day she is coming to dinner, simply because we have arranged several appointments and one has slipped my mind or I have not put it in my diary. Too many elderly people have been shut away in homes simply because unqualified offspring think they know better.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on February 01, 2013:

Emmanuel--we also went through 2 years of not knowing what was happening to my husband's parents. That is one of the main reasons I wrote this Hub--so other people would have better information than we were able to get online.

Emmanuel Kariuki from Nairobi, Kenya on February 01, 2013:

My dad went into dementia and inspite of all the warning signs above, no one had an inkling what was going on. This hub is a great resource for everybody with aging relatives, not to mention that we are aging too. Great hub and shared.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on January 31, 2013:

Thanks adrienne--I did a lot of research for this article and the others I wrote about Alzheimer's because after caring for my in-laws, I wanted to understand this disease better. There are many more studies going on right now and more treatments, but the best thing is to recognize the early signs and do all you can to keep your brain healthy.

Fierce Manson from Atlanta on January 31, 2013:

This is one of the most in-depth articles I have read on the warning signs of Alzheimer. A lot of the warning signs on your list I was familiar with, but there was a lot of information here I did not know were warning signs.

Have voted up and useful.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on January 31, 2013:

Hi Li--I think that the key is changes in memory. If you are the same in remembering as you've always been then that is't Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's is a brain disease. if you look at an Alzheimer's brain, it looks damaged. most of what I,ve read suggests that the autoposy of a person who had Alzheimer's shows immediately that they had the disease. what is perhaps more interesting to me is that some people can have Alzheimer,s brains but function in life as if they did not have the disease. that's what I wrote my hub preventinng Alzheimer's about. i'm practicing these things myself even though Alzzheimer,s is not common in my family and we tend to live to the 90s. I think strategies to protect your brain lead to the best possible life as an older person.

Li Galo from Mainly the USA but Sometimes Abroad on January 30, 2013:

I've been forgetful and absent-minded since I was a child. But I am great at memorizing things like tax law, which I do annually to stay qualified to do taxes. I wonder then, can forgetfulness or absent mindedness mask things like ADD instead? I just wondered since I have many of the early warning signs on your list but, then again, I've always been this way... It's not like it's new. People remark about how I used to lose things as a child and not remember people's names that I had just met when I was a kid. I tended to think it was because it was easy for me to be distracted. It's even hard for me to finish articles here because I start surfing the web, or get on facebook, and then forget I was writing a hub because I'm so engrossed in everything else, I'll have 20 tabs open, lol!

Phil Plasma from Montreal, Quebec on January 30, 2013:

Great hub to introduce people to the early signs, your list of 20 items to look for is especially helpful. Thanks for sharing! Voted up and useful.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on January 30, 2013:

Ronna--I do think the repeated story is part of that, but also people who don't have much social interaction may do that some. I also know that the stress of caregiving can make people have brain disfunction.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on January 30, 2013:

Fullof Love--my dad used to say the same thing about "just put me in a home and don't visit me." I think that it helps to realize that you will need help from others and to prepare for it.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on January 30, 2013:

Thanks for the comment Gus! Frankly, this subject is so hard I think you just have to laugh!

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on January 30, 2013:

Mary--Thanks so much my for noticing I'd put too many items on the test. I went back to fix it. You certainly can link this hub and I will have to check out yours. You might want to look at my other Hub on Tests for Alzheimers

Ronna Pennington from Arkansas on January 30, 2013:

Just mention that they ask questions over again b/c they've forgotten answers. Does that also include repeating stories over and over and over again within the same conversation?Alzheimer's/dementia are horribly evident in my family and I'm concerned about my mom now. I'm surprised to see, though, that I fit more of those warning signs than she does! Thanks for the info.

FullOfLoveSites from United States on January 30, 2013:

Even putting your keys to where you used to put, and just in a second you've totally forgotten where it is. That's really scary.

I've read an article written by a guy whose mother had Alzheimer's. He knew that this is an inherited condition, so he told his wife something like if he has a similar condition as he grows older, "just put me in a nursing home right away." Because he didn't want his daughter to go through such thing like he did.