7 surprising early signs of Alzheimer’s

These behavioral changes may warn of Alzheimer’s — and they have nothing to do with memory problems.

The average Alzheimer’s patient is not “Still Alice,” the 50-something linguistics expert from the Academy Award-winning movie who faces a devastating diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The average Alzheimer’s patient is in her late 70s, whose disease comes on more slowly than depicted in that film, says George Perry, Ph.D., dean of the College of Sciences at the University of Texas San Antonio and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Still, there are certain people who do get early-onset Alzheimer’s disease; in the U.S., about 200,000 people have it. How can you tell if your loved one is among them? There can be surprising symptoms that warn of its development — and they don’t all involve memory problems.

1. Stealing or other law-breaking

Any behavioral change as people age is of concern, Dr. Perry says. But this one is often a sign of Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), another progressively damaging, age-related brain disorder, which typically strikes adults aged 45-65. People’s executive function—their ability to make decisions—can be affected by the disease, which may explain why they become unable to discern right from wrong.

2. Frequent falling

A study of 125 older adults asked subjects to keep track of how often, over an eight-month time period, they fell or tripped. When researchers looked at the brain scans of those who fell most frequently, they saw a correlation between falls and the early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. If you or someone you love is falling frequently, tell your doctor. It may be an indicator of a cognitive problem.

3. Forgetting the function of objects

Can’t remember where you put your keys? Not usually a problem. But, says Dr. Perry, if you can’t remember what a key is for, or where dirty dishes are supposed to go, then you might be facing the first signs of Alzheimer’s Disease or dementia.

4. Eating inappropriate things

Before the onset of Alzheimer’s, patients tend to eat more—about 500 calories more per day—than their aging counterparts. And still, they tend to lose weight.  “We can only guess that the change is metabolic,” Dr. Perry says.

Some people actually eat inanimate objects prior to their diagnosis, though researchers don’t know why. But since Alzheimer’s and dementia affect the brain’s memory, it may be because their brain receives hunger signals, but can’t discern how to react to them. Some patients have been reported to eat paper or other inedible objects

5. Inability to recognize sarcasm

“I was being sarcastic.” We say this regularly because we can tell when someone is using the wise-guy device of sarcasm. But if you fail to recognize it, or take it very literally and seriously, it may be a sign of atrophy in your brain. (We all miss it from time to time, of course, but if you consistently “don’t get it,” it could be a problem.)

study by Katherine Rankin, Ph.D., of the University of California/San Francisco found that Alzheimer’s patients and those with Frontotemporal Disease were among those who could not recognize sarcasm in face-to-face encounters.

In such diseases, Dr. Perry says, the brain’s posterior hippocampus is affected, which is where short-term memory is stored, and where one would sort out such things as sarcasm.

6. Depression