While there’s currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease—the most common cause of dementia—being aware of the condition’s early warning signs is key to helping slow its progress. Early detection gives people access to new treatments for dementia, as well as the opportunity to make lifestyle changes that can help preserve cognitive function—just two of the many medical and emotional benefits of early diagnosis, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Memory loss and confusion are commonly known signs of dementia, but other symptoms may go unrecognized.Trouble managing money, changes in mood, and a lapse in hygiene habits can all signal the onset of cognitive decline—and your handwriting can offer a clue, as well. Read on to find out what to look for next time you put pen to paper—and when to see your doctor about it.
“Dementia is a category of brain diseases, so the causes of the apparent symptoms are hidden in the brain,” says Eric Rodriguez, co-founder and CEO of Innerbody Research. Rodriguez explains that Alzheimer’s disease can stop new brain cells from forming. “The neurons in the affected person’s brain start to lose their structure and function and may even die,” he says. “The result of this is a shrinking of the brain, called atrophy.”
Brain atrophy can cause a host of changes in the everyday functioning of those it affects, and one of the ways it can manifest is in their handwriting.
“Nerve cells generate an electrical pulse and send a message that manages the muscles, so as to allow movements of the body parts for various day to day tasks, including handwriting,” according to an article in the International Journal of Engineering Development and Research (IJEDR). Neurons that have died or been damaged due to dementia are no longer able to control these muscles. The result can be shaky or indecipherable handwriting.
“Writing is not an ordinary skill,” notes Rodriguez. “People spend years developing a specific style of writing consolidating a sound motor-control system of the brain. A marked deterioration of this carefully honed skill indicates something is wrong with the brain.”
Dementia can affect handwriting for other reasons, as well. Diana Kerwin, MD, told Everyday Health that shaky or increasingly indecipherable handwriting can be caused by apraxia. “The person literally forgets how to perform the motor tasks needed to write,” she explains. “Even though the motor system is intact, the instructions from the brain to the hand are impaired and it can affect handwriting.”
“Damage to cognitive functions makes your handwriting gradually indecipherable,” says Rodriguez. “Eventually, they look more like scrawls and scribbles than writing that could be once identified as yours.”
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Rodriguez details some of the other signs of dementia. “If a person repeats themselves while having a simple conversation, [telling] you the same story again and again without being aware that they just told you the story,” he says, or if they “have trouble remembering the answers you gave them to a question they have asked several times,” this could signal the onset of cognitive decline.
Another potential symptom? “[People] might have difficulty expressing the word when speaking, and often leave words out or substitute the wrong word, yet these are words they would previously use daily and would not have had difficulty with,” says Rodriguez. “An example would be if they asked you to pass them the TV remote. Instead of asking for the TV remote—words they would normally use—they say ‘pass me the flicker for the thingy.'”
The inability to clearly communicate contributes to mood swings and depression, which are also commonly seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Increasingly shaky handwriting, mood swings, and personality changes are all potential signs of cognitive decline—and it’s important to discuss these symptoms with a doctor. “Early detection of dementia disorders reduces the risk of you, the caregiver, developing anxiety and depression,” says Rodriguez. “Research shows that dementia caregivers experience the highest rates of anxiety and depression. Early diagnosis helps to reduce that risk.”
Preventative care can help reduce your risk of dementia and other illnesses. While exercise and diet can both be helpful for heading off dementia, other ways you can potentially lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease are less expected. Good oral hygiene, for example, has been shown to reduce the likelihood of dementia. Brain-stimulating games are another approach, such as video games, crosswords, quizzes, card games, and chess. Familiarizing yourself with these various activities and lifestyle choices, and putting them into practice, can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
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