The Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease | Keck Medicine of USC

The Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s Disease

Forgetfulness can take many forms and may vary in each person. Learn the difference between age-related forgetfulness and the more serious signs that signal a neurological disease.

Forgetfulness is normal, especially as you age, but serious memory problems may be a sign of a neurological disease, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common.

Helena Chang Chui, MD, with the USC Memory and Aging Center at Keck Medicine of USC and an internationally recognized Alzheimer’s disease expert, explains that Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia that develops slowly and worsens over time. Memory slips and intellectual capacity decreases, making everyday life challenging.

“Alzheimer’s starts by affecting the ability to learn and then spreads to long-term memory,” Chui says. “The person keeps losing more and more of their old self. The last thing to go are the youngest memories, usually those from childhood. Eventually, the patient is in another universe.”

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But how can you know whether memory loss is triggered by brain overload, natural aging or Alzheimer’s?

The following warning signs may signal symptoms of Alzheimer’s:

  • The ability to learn something new decreases or becomes impossible. Chui has seen patients who have no problem with memory, but can’t understand or learn a new skill. They may ask the same question over and over. “If our memory is not working, we may not realize what we have forgotten,” she explains.
  • Conversations and word recognition become difficult. A patient might stop abruptly in the middle of a conversation or tell the same story repeatedly in a short span of time.
  • Refusal to participate in social activities that have been a routine part of life. The patient knows that something isn’t right but can’t figure out what, so they avoid social situations that might turn out awkward.
  • Personality changes and mood swings. One of Chui’s patients lost the ability to recognize anxiety. “He would ride his motorcycle right up the flat bed to his truck, she says. “He’s not afraid. He doesn’t have any sense of danger.”

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but there are treatments for symptoms that can help a patient and their family have a more sustainable and rewarding life.

According to Chui, the biggest frustration for friends and loved ones can be getting the patient to a doctor for diagnosis. Nonetheless, the sooner a patient is examined, the better. “There is no quick fix and there is no cure, but a diagnosis helps families know how to cope with the disease. We are aiming for the best quality of life for everyone. We just have to redefine what that means.”

by Heidi Tyline King

For more than 30 years, Keck Medicine of USC physicians and researchers have made major contributions to understanding Alzheimer’s disease, vascular brain injury and memory problems.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area and are looking for exceptional care from some of the top Alzheimer’s specialists in the world, be sure to schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting