As the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, more than five million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease—a number that is increasing rapidly each year. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 5 percent of those five million Americans experience early-onset Alzheimer’s. Common symptoms of Alzheimer’s and dementia include memory loss, confusion with time and place, difficulty speaking and writing, losing or misplacing items, and changes in mood or personality. Washington University in St. Louis has discovered a new symptom: a loss of navigational skills. Learn about the study and how to recognize this new early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.
The connection – Researchers found that navigational problems begin to surface early in those who develop Alzheimer’s disease. Doctors and researchers associate a loss of navigational skills with the buildup of amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Researchers have also found that the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory, recognition of new surroundings, and the creation of cognitive maps—is the target for deterioration, shrinkage, and other Alzheimer’s-related damage. Observations of this phenomenon led researchers at Washington University to develop this study.
The setup – Researchers gathered a group of test subjects that included sixteen people with symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s, thirteen people with preclinical Alzheimer’s, and forty-two people with healthy controls. The study tested how well the participants could learn and follow a virtual maze made of hallways with four wallpaper patterns and twenty landmarks. The study also tested how well the participants could create a mental map of the maze. This design was based on the fact that humans find their way using two distinct forms of spatial representation and navigation. Each of the seventy-one participants spent approximately two hours testing their ability to navigate through the virtual maze with twenty minutes to either learn a specified route or study the maze with a joystick.
The findings – The study showed participants with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease experienced difficulty creating a mental map of the virtual maze, but they did not experience any trouble learning a preset route. Those with early-onset Alzheimer’s experienced difficulty both creating a mental map and learning a preset route. The healthy controls were able to complete both tasks with ease. Researchers believe these results can create a new tool to detect the earliest cognition symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. However, difficulty with new areas does not necessarily mean one would develop Alzheimer’s later in life.
Aging adults with early-onset and advanced Alzheimer’s disease and dementia often require around-the-clock care. Elder care communities, such as Assisted Living, Memory Care, and Skilled Nursing providers, offer your parent or loved one a safe and healthy environment. If your loved one begins to exhibit symptoms, such as falling more frequently, eating and sleeping at irregular times, or becoming unusually aggressive or violent, it may be time to consider an elder care community. Speak with an OurParents Senior Living Advisor about Memory Care communities in your area. You can also continue exploring the OurParents website for more information about senior living communities and other care options.