Early warning sign of Alzheimer's revealed

Do you struggle to turn when you walk? It could be a sign of ALZHEIMER’S, scientists say (and here’s six other bizarre symptoms)

  • A University College London team examined navigational errors among people
  • This included the young, elderly and those with mild cognitive impairment

Difficulty turning when walking could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s, scientists have warned.

Experts used virtual reality to help examine navigational errors among people with the first signs of the disease, in the hope of developing simple tests for the condition.

A team from University College London compared 31 healthy younger people with 36 healthy elderly people and 43 patients with mild cognitive impairment. 

Mild cognitive impairment refers to the stage between the expected decline in memory and thinking that happens with age and the more serious decline of dementia.

All three groups were asked to complete a task while wearing virtual reality goggles. They walked along a route guided by numbered cones consisting of two straight walks connected by a turn.

Experts used virtual reality to help examine navigational errors among people with the first signs of the disease, in the hope of developing simple tests for the condition

From 1906 when clinical psychiatrist  Alois Alzheimer first reported a ‘severe disease of the cerebral cortex’ to uncovering the mechanics of the disease in the 1980s-90s to today’s ‘breakthrough’ drug lecanemab,  scientists have spent over a century trying to grapple with the brutal disease that robs people of their cognition and independence 

They then had to return to their starting position guided by their memory alone, and the task was performed repeatedly under three different conditions.

Analysis revealed that people with mild cognitive impairment consistently overestimated the turns on the route and had greater variability in their sense of direction.

Dr Andrea Castegnaro, one of the study’s authors, said there is already evidence that problems with navigation is an important early sign of Alzheimer’s.

‘What we added here is that there are specific aspects in navigation in Alzheimer’s that are particularly disrupted,’ he explained.

‘We found that individuals with early Alzheimer’s consistently overestimated the turns on the given route and showed increased variability in their sense of direction.

What is Alzheimer’s and how is it treated? 

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, in which build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.

This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink. 

More than 5million people suffer from the disease in the US, where it is the 6th leading cause of death, and more than 1 million Britons have it.


As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost. That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason. The progress of the disease is slow and gradual. On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.


  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Disorientation
  • Behavioral changes
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulties dealing with money or making a phone call 


  • Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
  • Becoming anxious and frustrated over inability to make sense of the world, leading to aggressive behavior 
  • Eventually lose ability to walk
  • May have problems eating 
  • The majority will eventually need 24-hour care   


There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, some treatments are available that help alleviate some of the symptoms. One of these is Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors which helps brain cells communicate to one another. 

Another is menantine which works by blocking a chemical called glutamate that can build-up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease inhibiting mental function. 

Source: Alzheimer’s Association and the NHS

‘In other words, it seems that when you ask people to turn a certain amount, they think they have turned much more than they actually did.

‘More importantly, by including healthy elderly in the study, we also found that these specific aspects are not an extension of healthy ageing, and they seem rather specific to Alzheimer’s disease.

‘It is important to say however that these are early findings and we are working to confirm these.’

It is estimated that there are currently 944,000 people living with dementia in the UK, with the number expected to rise sharply in the coming years.

The team hope that their findings, published in the journal Current Biology, could pave the way for tests that can be used by doctors.

Dr Leah Mursaleen, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘There are nearly one million people living with Alzheimer’s in the UK, but thanks to limitations in current methods of detection, only around 60 per cent of them will ever receive a diagnosis.

‘So, it’s vital that we develop new, more precise early detection techniques that can be easily used in healthcare systems like the NHS.

‘This will be particularly important as we enter an era where dementia becomes a treatable condition.

‘Thanks to advances in technology, a wide range of devices and platforms are being explored to see if they have the potential to detect early signs of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.

‘This small, early-stage study looks at using a virtual reality environment to analyse the way people turn while walking.

‘The results suggest this can detect differences in participants with early Alzheimer’s disease.

‘However, as the group included fewer than 50 people, a larger study is needed to understand the future potential of this promising discovery.

‘It will also be important to understand how digital technologies like this can be used in combination with other emerging techniques like blood tests, which are also showing huge promise for detecting Alzheimer’s disease.’

Sian Gregory, Alzheimer’s Society research communications manager, said: ‘Getting a diagnosis for dementia can be difficult for a multitude of reasons, and we know that very early symptoms can be subtle and hard to detect.

‘However, problems with navigation are thought to be some of the earliest noticeable changes in Alzheimer’s disease, so this is valuable insight.

‘Though this technology is in its infancy and work is needed to improve its accuracy, it may offer a way to detect disease-specific brain changes in the early stages of dementia, potentially benefiting hundreds of thousands living with the condition in the future.’

Siz bizarre warning signs of Alzheimer’s

Giving out money

Giving out cash to strangers could be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s.

That is according to research by USC and Bar-Ilan University in Israel, which linked financial altruism to the first stages of the disease.

The study tested the theory on 67 adults around the age of 70.

The participants were put in pairs with people they had never met, and were given $10 (£8) to distribute between themselves and the other.

Neurological tests were given to the participants to judge their cognitive state and their potential risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The results, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggested those who were at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s were also more willing to hand out money to the person they had never met.

Dr Duke Han, a neuropsychology professor at USC who led the research, said: ‘Trouble handling money is thought to be one of the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and this finding supports that notion.’

Changes in humour and swearing more are all signs of Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia (FTD) — a type of dementia that causes problems with behaviour and language. According to experts bad parking, and dressing scruffy are also signs of the memory-robbing disease. Graphic shows: Six signs of Alzheimer’s disease

Changes to humour

Starting to watch slapstick comedy classics like Airplane and Mr Bean could be another sign of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers at University College London found people who had the disease were more likely to enjoy watching slapstick, absurdist or satirical comedy compared to other people of the same age.

A questionnaire was given to friends and relatives of 48 people with Alzheimer’s and FTD.

They were asked about their loved one’s preferences for different types of comedy and whether their taste had shifted over the past 15 years.

Researchers asked if they were a fan of slapstick comedy such as Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, satirical comedy such as South Park or absurdist comedy like The Mighty Boosh.

Family and friends were also asked if they had noticed any inappropriate humour in recent years.

According to the study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2015, people with the disease start to prefer slapstick jokes nine years before typical dementia symptoms begin to show.

It also found people with FTD were more likely to find tragic events funny, or laugh at things others would not find funny like a badly parked car or barking dog.

These changes in humour in could be caused by the brain shrinking in the frontal lobe, researchers say.

Dressing scruffy

Making fashion disasters, struggling to piece together clothes that match and wearing things that are not weather-appropriate could be another sign of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers at the universities of Kent and York described how people suffering with dementia were less likely to be able to dress themselves when left to their own devices.

The study, published in Sociology of Health and Illness in 2018, focused on 32 people in three care homes and 15 regular home sin Kent.

Researchers interviewed 28 care homes staff, 29 family carers and relatives to find out how you should dress people suffering with dementia.

Melissa, a family carer who was quoted in the study, said: ‘I’ve never seen my dad scruffy. Never. Until that day I turned up in the home and he’s sitting there in screwed up clothes which really hurt me because I’m not used to that – not at all.’

Carers also said it was difficult to dress people with more advanced dementia because they need encouragement and assistance guiding their arms.

Scruffiness and changes what they wear can be caused by several Alzheimer’s symptoms, from muscles stiffness and jolty arm movements making it physically harder to dress to simply forgetting clothes belong to them.

Bad parking

The memory-robbing condition can make Alzheimer’s patient’s bad at driving.

The condition affects motor skills, memory and thought processes making their reaction times slow and bad at parking, leading patients to eventually give up the keys to their car.

Researchers at Washington University in St Louis studied the driving habits of 139 people over a year to see how Alzheimer’s changes the ay they drove.

Half of the participants were diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s while the other half were not.

The study, published in Alzheimer’s Research and Therapy in 2021, suggested those with the disease were more likely to drive slowly and made sudden changes in direction.

The team used the findings to craft a model that predicted if people had Alzheimer’s based on their skills behind the wheel.

The model correctly guessed whether someone had the disease in nine out of 10 cases.


Having no filter and swearing in inappropriate situations could be another warning sign.

The filter people usually use to stop themselves using inappropriate language in front of children, for example, weakens with the disease, causing those with FTD to let more profanities slip.

People with FTD are more likely to use the word ‘f**k’ when prompted to name words beginning with ‘f’, researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles found.

The study, published in Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology in 2010, asked 70 patients to name as many words as they could think of beginning with letters ‘f’, ‘a’ and ‘s’ in a minute.

They also found that six of the 32 dementia patients said the swear word when asked to list words for ‘f’, and more said the word ‘s**t’ for ‘s’.

Having no filter

Just like swearing, as Alzheimer’s patients’ brains change, they start to have no filter.

How they act and what they say can degenerate in many cases.

Undressing in public, being rude and talking to strangers are all signs of the disease, according to experts.

The frontal prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobes of the brain is the part that controls are filter. But when you develop Alzheimer’s this part of the brain shrinks.

Alzheimer’s Society said: ‘These situations can be very confusing, distressing, shocking or frustrating for someone with dementia, as well as for those close to them.

‘The person with dementia may not understand why their behaviour is considered inappropriate. It’s very unlikely that they are being inappropriate on purpose.’

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