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A loss of the sense of smell, and other early warning signs for Alzheimer’s

Anyone who has an elderly relative or cares for an older person will almost certainly know the hallmark signs and symptoms of dementia. Memory loss, confusion and changes in mood will all set alarm bells ringing, but did you know there are other tell-tale signs that could provide an early warning of underlying problems?

Here are some of the more surprising early warning signs that could help you recognise Alzheimer’s faster than ever before:

Losing the sense of smell

There is growing evidence that a loss of the ability to identify odours may be an early warning sign of dementia. Scientific research into this is ongoing, but so far, the results have been positive. One study proved a link between increased Alzheimer’s risk and the inability to distinguish between common scents, such as clove, menthol, strawberry and lemon, and another study found people with a confirmed diagnosis in the early stages of Alzheimer’s struggled to smell a spoonful of peanut butter close to their nose.

A decreasing sense of smell is not a guaranteed indicator of Alzheimer’s, as many older people will experience a decline in sensory sensitivity anyway. However, this link between the ability to smell and the early stages of Alzheimer’s is an interesting concept which could help with early detection.

Sleep disruption

Recent studies into sleep patterns have shown that poor sleepers are significantly more likely to carry particular biological markers for Alzheimer’s, including high levels of amyloid which causes plaques and tangles in the brains of those with the disease. It is possible that improving sleep quality could reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or at least could slow its development, although this link is poorly understood at the moment.

Studies found that a ‘glymphatic system’ exists in the body, which clears amyloid from the brain while we sleep. In someone who doesn’t sleep well, amyloid could be ineffectively cleared, leaving them more at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. More studies need to be conducted before we will fully understand the link between sleep and dementia, but it’s another early warning sign that could help with faster detection in future.

Inability to recognise sarcasm

It’s apparently the lowest form of wit, but sarcastic remarks are a part of everyday life for most of us. Mostly we can tell when someone is being a bit of a wise-guy, although occasionally we all fall for it. However, if someone is regularly unable to detect sarcasm, and takes every comment very literally and seriously, it could be a sign of a problem in the brain.

A study in the US tested out this theory and found that those people living with Alzheimer’s were more likely to fail to recognise sarcasm in face to face encounters. This is thought to be because the hippocampus has become affected by the disease, which is where we sort out things like short term memory and sarcasm.

Staring into space

We all love a bit of a daydream from time to time, but if an older person you care for is regularly staring off into space in an unfocussed and detached way, it could be an early warning sign of ‘tangles’ in the brain. This lack of focus is a symptom of the unfocussed nature of the dementia affected brain struggling to cope with processing everything that is going on.

Known as ‘mental lapses’, these moments of becoming zoned out are common in people with Lewy Body dementia, but only recently has it become clear how common they are in people with early stage Alzheimer’s too. Research in the US found that people who suffer mental lapses are 4.6 times more likely to have dementia than those who don’t, and that they tended to suffer fatigue more than other people too.

It’s unlikely that any one of these symptoms signals a major concern, but by knowing the early signs you can be better prepared to spot other indicators. Early diagnosis is key to better management of the disease, and can mean your loved one gets the treatment they need to alleviate the worst of the symptoms. 

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