Long-time Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek is pretty much the king of trivia. But he revealed in a new interview that some recent memory issues made him worried that he would have to give up his career—and that he might have early signs of Alzheimer's disease.
Trebek, 78, told Vulture that he decided to get tested for Alzheimer’s disease after he struggled to recall facts as easily as he had in the past. "I love doing crossword puzzles, and recently I’d be looking at a clue, it’d be 23 across, and I’d be trying to fit the answer into 26 across," he said. "I was always off.”
He underwent several tests, and although his first results were a little iffy, subsequent testing confirmed that he's OK. “The first time they tested me they said, 'It doesn’t look good.' Then we did more testing and they said, 'You’re okay. No need to worry,’” Trebek said.
Trebek said that the memory issues were “natural,” adding, “I’m 78. It’s not like this happened at 50.”
There are some early signs of Alzheimer’s disease that are worth investigating, but not all memory issues are equally concerning.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone with memory problems has Alzheimer’s disease—it's normal for your memory to decline with age, Amit Sachdev, M.D., an assistant professor and director of the Division of Neuromuscular Medicine at Michigan State University, tells SELF. Some people have what's called "mild cognitive impairment," a condition in which people have more memory issues than is normal for their age, but it doesn’t interfere with their daily lives, the NIA explains.
The first noticeable symptoms of Alzheimer’s may vary from person to person, but many people find that they begin to have issues finding the right words to use, vision and spacial issues, and impairments in judgment or reasoning, according to the NIA. They may also wander and get lost, have trouble handling money, repeat questions, take longer than usual to complete normal daily tasks, and show changes in their personality or behavior.
But whether or not your memory issues are normal or possibly a sign of something more serious depends on whether they impact your daily routine, Dr. Sachdev says. “With typical aging, memory declines but the individual or the family do not perceive an impact on daily function.” So, it can be normal to forget why you went to the fridge, but it may be concerning if you're forgetting where you’re headed when you’re already in the car or forgetting to pay your bills.
Your doctor can give you several different kinds of tests to rule out other causes of memory issues before diagnosing you with Alzheimer's.
“If people are concerned, they should go to their doctor and get checked out,” Scott Kaiser, M.D., a family physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells SELF. “Doing that is the best possible thing.”
Technically, doctors can’t give you a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease while you’re alive because it requires examining your brain tissue. But they can still determine whether or not your memory issues are likely a sign of Alzheimer's-related dementia using standard blood and urine tests, interviewing a family member or friend to see if they've noticed any off behaviors, and basic tests of memory, problem solving, counting, attention, and language, the NIA says.
These blood and urine tests can help your doctor rule out any other factors that might be causing your memory issues like kidney or liver problems, electrolyte imbalances, or vitamin deficiencies, Ian M. Grant, M.D., behavioral neurologist at the Mesulam Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF. “Those can all make memory problems worse, and potentially have some kind of fix to them,” he says.
After that, your doctor will likely have you undergo a brain imaging study, such as a CT scan, MRI, or positron emission tomography (PET). These can help rule out any masses (e.g. a tumor), determine if you’ve had a stroke that could be affecting your thinking, check for overall damage to your brain, and see if your brain has atrophied more than is expected as a part of normal aging, Dr. Grant explains.
But even if your initial results suggest there's a problem, like in Trebek's case, subsequent testing might show that any memory issues you might have are actually totally normal.
Really, it happens. Maybe you were just having a off day when you were first tested, which skewed your results. Maybe you didn’t sleep well the night before, got nervous during the testing, or were really stressed out—all of those things can mess with the results, Dr. Kaiser says. Even having something as minor as a cold or other viral illness could skew the results, Dr. Grant adds.
“Screening tests are good for identifying potential concern, but they’re not precise and specific,” Dr. Kaiser says. “Further testing is going to be more sensitive and specific.” But the only way to know if there's anything to really be worried about is to first check in with your doctor.