We know what you’re thinking: I’m too young to have Alzheimer’s. And you may very well be. But we’d also put money on the fact that Pat Summitt thought the same thing. She’s the head coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team—and has won more games than anyone—male or female—in college hoops history. Earlier this year at age 59, she was diagnosed with early onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia where brain cells degenerate and die, causing problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. An estimated 5.4 million Americans are living with the disease—3.4 million are women. Most people get it after age 65; but up to 5% (or roughly 200,000 Americans) start suffering early, in their 40s and 50s. The symptoms sneak up slowly, but eventually become worse and start to interfere with your quality of life. That’s what prompted Coach Summitt to get checked—she started forgetting when team meetings were scheduled and occasionally drew blanks when calling plays. Here are 9 warning signs of this lady killer; if any of these feel uncomfortably familiar, talk with your doctor. Though there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the sooner you’re diagnosed, the sooner you can take steps to slow its progression, and live better for longer.
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1. You forget what you had for breakfast. Obviously memory loss is the hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s, but there are definite degrees: Forgetting to DVR your husband’s favorite show while you watch yours can happen to anyone. The date of your dentist appointment slips your mind, also normal. But not recalling recently learned information, like the name of someone you just met, for example, could be cause for concern—that’s because Alzheimer’s first attacks the part of the brain that stores short-term memory. Other memory lapses to note: forgetting significant dates and events; asking for the same information over and over; and over-relying on your cell phone’s reminder beeps to get you through your to-dos.
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2. You lose track of numbers. Budgeting for your monthly bills used to be as simple as a few strokes of the calculator and doubling the ingredients of your favorite recipe took all of 3 seconds, but now the tasks quickly become frustrating and seem to take forever. As Alzheimer’s develops, more and more plaques and tangles—two abnormal structures that damage and kill nerve cells—form in the brain area involved in thinking and planning. The effects: You get confused more easily, you have trouble handling money or dealing with numbers, and it gets tougher to organize your thoughts.
3. You get flustered by routine activities. Maybe you get a little lost en route to your favorite store, or you can’t remember how to update your Facebook status. Sure, everyone blanks for a moment now and then, but pay attention if those moments happen often—particularly with the everyday things.
4. You hit the brakes hard at most traffic lights. Good that you don’t rear-end the car stopped in front of you, not good you are having a harder time judging distance. Alzheimer’s may disrupt your brain’s ability to judge spatial relationships, skew your understanding of what you see, and even mess with your sense of time and place.
5. You find your “lost” cell phone in the refrigerator. Or the medicine cabinet, or whatever other weird spot you can’t remember putting it in. Occasionally misplacing things is normal; what may not be, however, is if you do it more and more frequently and retracing your steps to find the lost items occurs less and less.
6. You call a watch a hand clock. Struggling with words when you didn’t before indicates Alzheimer’s, as does having trouble expressing your thoughts and following or taking part in a conversation.
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7. You try to cross a busy intersection without waiting for the light. You see food burning on the stove and don’t know what to do. You answer a telemarketer’s call, and your donation is a little too handsome. Poor judgment and ineffective decision-making are all signs your brain function is compromised.
8. You become less social. The cooking class you used to love isn’t so much fun anymore; neither is game night with friends or tennis on the weekends. You may also become easily upset, somewhat depressed, and anxious or fearful for no specific reason. Alzheimer’s affects how you interact with people and can cause changes in your mood and personality.
9. You have diabetes. That doubles your risk of developing Alzheimer’s, according to a new study just published in the journal Neurology. Insulin resistance and high blood sugar may lead to complications that damage brain cells as well as the blood vessels that bring oxygen and nutrients to your brain, raising your risk of Alzheimer’s. Other conditions that may have the same effect include high blood pressure, heart disease, and high cholesterol. Work with your doctor to monitor and manage these diseases.