How do you know if an aging loved one is showing typical age-related changes vs. showing early signs and symptoms of dementia? Dementia warning signs vary, but memory loss, behavior changes, and increased confusion are common indicators.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, approximately 5.8 million people are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in 2020. While AD is the most common cause of dementia, there are many other causes and types, including vascular dementia, fronto-temporal dementia (FTD) and Lewy body dementia. In some cases, a person may exhibit changes in cognition, behavior, and brain structure and function that are characteristic of more than one type of dementia (mixed dementia).
Every dementia patient experiences different symptoms with different severities, but there are some basic early warning signs you can look for. Keep an eye out for these red flags to determine if a loved one should seek a comprehensive medical workup and cognitive testing.
10 Warning Signs and Symptoms of Dementia
Forgetfulness and Short-Term Memory LossThe most common symptom of most types of dementia is memory loss. However, just because Dad can’t remember where he put his wallet or calls the grandkids by the wrong names does not mean he has Alzheimer’s. We all forget the details of a conversation from time to time, but the early effects of this disease can result in a person forgetting entire conversations that took place only moments ago. AD usually affects short-term memory first, meaning a person forgets information that they recently learned. Dementia patients have trouble remembering important dates and events and often ask for the same information repeatedly. They may increasingly rely on reminders such as notes or calls from family members to maintain their everyday schedule.
Lack of Concentration and Increased ConfusionGetting confused about times and places is a common indicator. Difficulty concentrating can make normal activities take much longer than they used to. Dementia patients may forget where they are or how they got there, or they may get lost trying to navigate to familiar places. As their condition worsens, some people have trouble differentiating between events that happened in the past, those that will be occurring in the future, and things that are taking place in the present. They can lose track of the seasons and the general passage of time, causing them to show up for appointments or social plans at the wrong time or not at all.
Losing ThingsA person with dementia may begin to put things in increasingly unusual places. Everyone tends to misplace their car and house keys from time to time, but finding “lost” keys in the freezer could indicate a more serious problem. A senior may lose things and be unable to use the simple method of retracing their steps to find the missing items. This situation can even escalate into accusations of theft when they cannot find a personal belonging that they have unknowingly misplaced. This can lead to paranoia, and they may react by placing their things in even more unusual hiding spots to foil the suspected thief.
Difficulty Doing Familiar TasksThis condition also affects one’s ability to do normal everyday tasks. Dementia patients may have trouble with coordination and remembering how to complete the multi-step processes needed to drive, cook a favorite recipe, or play a familiar game. They may start relying more on a spouse or family member to do things for them that they once enjoyed doing themselves. Symptoms can affect one’s visual abilities as well, such as depth perception, judging distance and seeing colors. These changes can cause family and friends to notice increased clumsiness, accidents, falls and other uncharacteristic mishaps.
Language and Speech ProblemsAD affects how a person creates and processes language. A patient will typically have trouble recalling the right words in conversations and while writing. Some seniors can compensate by using generic stand-in words like “thingy” or “what-cha-ma-call-it,” but others may create their own terms for objects or actions. For example, someone with dementia might call a watch a “hand clock.” This confusion and impaired word-finding ability can also cause them to stop abruptly in the middle of sentences or conversations.
Problems With Simple MathPeople in the early stages of dementia may have difficulty working with numbers, including simple math problems they have done their entire lives. Dementia patients may struggle with balancing their checkbook, calculating tips, or performing basic addition and subtraction. Math doesn’t come easily to everyone, but the inability to complete basic, routine problems is a clear indicator that something is wrong.
Poor JudgmentLook for changes in decision-making abilities, rational thought processes and judgment. A person who has made poor or risky decisions all their life probably does not have a medical condition causing these behaviors. However, dementia could be the culprit in a scenario where a logical person who used to carefully weigh all their options and make informed decisions suddenly begins exhibiting poor judgment. This could include falling for offers that are clearly scams, reckless spending or dressing inappropriately for the weather.
Personality Changes and Mood SwingsIndividuals might exhibit changes in personality and sudden mood swings. They could become fearful, suspicious, paranoid, depressed or anxious. A confident person might become tentative and shy. They may be easily upset and become especially frustrated in new or public places where they are out of their comfort zone.
Changes in Grooming and Personal HygieneSudden or steadily declining attention to personal care, such as infrequent bathing, wearing the same clothes day after day, and not their brushing teeth, are common indicators of dementia. If a person kept their home immaculate all their life but suddenly stops cleaning and allows clutter to accumulate, it could be a cause for concern regarding their mental state.
Withdrawing from Friends and FamilyFinally, withdrawal from social opportunities and activities a senior once enjoyed can be a red flag. Affected individuals tend to dodge these situations to avoid drawing attention to their memory lapses or difficulty communicating. A person with dementia who is aware of their inability to converse or perform tasks as they once did, may lose confidence and remove themselves from situations in which they would normally interact with friends and family. Depression and anxiety related to this change in abilities can also lead to withdrawal from social situations.
How to Address Early Signs of Dementia
If you notice any of the above signs and think someone you love may have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, make a doctor’s appointment immediately. Early diagnosis is critical for ruling out curable conditions that can mimic symptoms of dementia, devising care and treatment strategies, and making legal and financial plans for the future.
Sources: 2020 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures (https://www.alz.org/media/Documents/alzheimers-facts-and-figures.pdf); What Is Dementia? Symptoms, Types, and Diagnosis (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-dementia-symptoms-types-and-diagnosis)