Dementia, the most common form of which is Alzheimer's Disease, affects millions of older Americans. As the population ages, physicians are seeing more and more cases of dementia, and they are working on ways to detect and prevent dementia which erases memories, communication skills, personalities, and relationships from the minds of seniors. Recent studies show that one way caregivers can help physicians discover early signs of dementia is to depict what they know best--the behavior and habits of an elderly loved one. Of particular significance may be any observable changes in personality.
Experts are now saying that a change toward irritability or aggressive behavior, unrealistic beliefs, or a sudden presence of apathy or disinterest in activities may indicate the early signs of dementia. These noticeable changes, if they continue for some time, may indicate alterations in the brain. Since dementia results from the brain ceasing its typical, healthy activity of communication between all parts, these changes may look different depending on what part of the brain is losing function and how quickly it is losing it. At the same time there are other possible causes for these kinds of changes, and these should be considered thoroughly by an elderly person's physician. Depression, medication side effects, and insufficient nutrition may also bring about these kinds of personality changes.
A recently published study in the Journal of Gerontology notes that families and loved ones with an earlier diagnosis can better prepare for the onset of dementia, which can be debilitating and result in tragic consequences if undiagnosed. Dementia sufferers can wander and become lost; they can grow aggressive and harm themselves or others; they may lose large chunks of memory and walk into dangerous situations. Without proper planning and safety measures, seniors with dementia are at great risk. Further, those who experience behavior-related dementia symptoms get worse faster, according to Dr. Zahinoor Ismail in an interview with The New York Times. They suffer more brain damage and develop "full-blown dementia" faster than those with only cognitive symptoms. This makes it all the more important to notice changes in behavior, as they can show that dementia may be coming on relatively rapidly.
What a Caregiver Can Do
Caregivers of seniors do well to note any changes in personality. It is particularly important for caregivers to be observant when dealing with someone who has risk factors for dementia. These are, most notably, family history, but a lack of formal education, other cognitive disorders, and other risk factors can be identified by a loved one's physician. Temporary or small fluctuations in mood happen to everyone, but permanent, sharp changes in day-to-day behavior may signal that dementia is underway. If a loved one who is normally vibrant and interested in daily activities suddenly becomes disinterested in things the person once found exciting, he or she may need an evaluation by a neurologist or psychologist in order to determine if dementia might be the cause. This is especially true if the person has not changed medication or daily regimen recently. Sudden aggressive behavior, like shouting, physical aggression, and trouble maintaining healthy relationships should be treated with caution and addressed by a doctor as well.
One important change often caused by dementia is an inability to make good, proper judgments. If an elderly loved one is in charge of his or her own finances, caregivers do well to keep an eye out for strange, risky, and ill-advised purchases and investments. As dementia attacks parts of the brain that help seniors distinguish good investments and choices from bad ones, money may be inexplicably disappearing, or disappearing into bad causes. That is a good time to discuss the senior's choices frankly, though not confrontationally, and to consult a doctor.
Since some dementias like Alzheimer's Disease can only be accurately diagnosed after a patient's death, dementia can be difficult to detect, especially in the early stages. However, early detection of dementia-like symptoms with no other evident cause can help equip caregivers with the knowledge of how to keep their loved ones safe and happy for a longer period of time.
If a family member notices changes in the personality of a loved one and is concerned, a doctor will be up on the most recent research into personality changes and dementia. A doctor may administer a newly minted personality test to determine whether or not these changes result from dementia or if further tests should be used to find the cause. All changes in personality should be taken seriously, as they may indicate serious health complications.
Alz.org. Behavioral Symptoms. Alzheimer's Association. Available at http://www.alz.org/professionals_and_researchers_behavioral_symptoms_pr.asp. Retrieved July 25, 2016.
Balsis, Steve, Carpenter, Brian D., and Storandt, Martha. (2005). Personality Change Precedes Clinical Diagnosis of Dementia of the Alzheimer Type. The Journals of Gerontology Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, 60:(2): 98-101. Available at http://psychsocgerontology.oxfordjournals.org/content/60/2/P98.full. Retrieved July 25, 2016.
Belluck, Pam. (July 24, 2016). Personality Change May Be Early Sign of Dementia, Experts Say. The New York Times. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/26/health/alzheimers-checklist-mild-behavioral-impairment.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share. Retrieved July 25, 2016.
Laputz, Sonya. Caregiver Tips & Tools: Personality Changes in Dementia. Alzheimer's Association, Number 30. Available at http://www.alz.org/cacentral/documents/Dementia_Care_30-Personality_Changes_in_Dementia.pdf. Retrieved July 25, 2016.