Cooking and sharing meals is central to many of our lives—an everyday ritual that keeps us close. But experts say it can also offer a window into your health—if you know what to look out for. In particular, the Alzheimer’s Association warns that if you notice one particular thing while cooking, it could alert you to the early stages of cognitive decline, even in the absence of other symptoms. Read on to learn which one change in the kitchen is considered a red flag, and why it’s important to be evaluated immediately if you notice it.
Alzheimer’s disease can present with a range of symptoms, both cognitive and physical. The most common of these symptoms—especially in the disease’s early stages—is difficulty learning or remembering new things. Other cognitive symptoms include confusion, disorientation, and difficulty concentrating. Several symptoms unrelated to cognition may also occur, and can affect one’s behavior, mood, and physical health.
Though in most cases these symptoms will go on to disrupt a person’s life progressively, they may initially show up subtly, and one at a time. And while there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, detecting these early symptoms and intervening with a doctor’s help may enable you to slow your symptoms’ progression.
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Cooking may feel intuitive to some, but in reality, it requires complex cognitive abilities including memory, planning, multitasking, and safety awareness. For this reason, it can present some notable challenges to people with Alzheimer’s and related forms of dementia.
In particular, the Alzheimer’s Association says that if you find yourself struggling to cook with a recipe, this could be a significant sign of Alzheimers. “Some people living with dementia may experience changes in their ability to develop and follow a plan or work with numbers. They may have trouble following a familiar recipe,” the organization’s experts write. “They may have difficulty concentrating and take much longer to do things than they did before,” they further warn.
Even if you are able to follow a recipe, there’s yet another way that having Alzheimer’s can derail your cooking. Alzheimer’s is known to cause loss of smell (anosmia) and loss of taste (ageusia)—making it more likely that someone with the condition will cook a meal that’s unappetizing to others.
Leann Poston, MD, a licensed physician and medical expert for Invigor Medical, says this may be a good conversation opener to suggest evaluation if you notice the symptom in a loved one. “If a recipe is not followed correctly, everyone will notice the outcome,” she tells Best Life. “Therefore, it is more difficult to explain away.” It may also feel less confrontational to orient your concerns around the tangible symptoms of loss of taste and smell, rather than broader concerns about cognition.
Finally, the Alzheimer’s Society says there’s one more red flag you may notice at mealtime: “A person with dementia may begin to develop changes in how they experience flavor. They may start to enjoy flavors they never liked before, or dislike foods they always liked. Sometimes people with dementia make food choices that don’t match their usual beliefs or preferences,” their experts write.
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No longer being able to cook safely can represent a major change in one’s lifestyle, and can bring up some strong emotions, experts say. “Cooking daily meals is often an essential part of someone’s independence, but many people who have dementia struggle with cooking,” says The Reitman Centre, a Mount Sinai-affiliated support center for caregivers of those with dementia.
Besides the practical considerations, it can also have an impact on one’s sense of identity and community. “Food, sharing meals, and cooking is a central part of all of our lives,” the Reitman Centre adds. “Because self-reflection is also often impaired in dementia (the technical word is anosagnosia) many people with dementia can also be resistant to giving up cooking and to losing their role as chef in the family,” adds the Centre, which recommends adding pre-made meals into one’s meal plan.
A doctor may be able to help you assess what level of cooking independence is considered safe for you or your affected loved one. They may also be able to suggest interventions to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Speak with your doctor if you believe you are displaying early signs of dementia, or have other concerns about your cognitive health.
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