Early Warning Signs of Dementia
Grace Weatherby
/ Categories: WELLNESS, 2024

Early Warning Signs of Dementia

It’s not unusual to misplace your keys, forget someone’s name, or forgetting what you’re looking for upon entering a room. But recurring issues—especially those that interfere with daily living—may be an early sign of dementia.

The term dementia refers to changes in the brain that cause memory loss and a loss of function. Early symptoms of dementia can be very subtle and develop gradually over time, making them hard to pick up on. They can also vary dramatically from person to person depending on the type of dementia. Some people may experience general confusion or forgetfulness while others display dramatic changes in personality.

So how do you tell the difference between normal, age-related forgetfulness and a more serious memory problem?

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends that people with several of the following warning symptoms of dementia should consult a doctor for a complete assessment.

Memory loss that disrupts daily life: this includes forgetting important dates or events, or increasingly relying on memory aids—think sticky notes or electronic reminders)

Challenges in planning or solving problems: this may include trouble staying on top of monthly bills, finding your way home when there is a detour in the road, and learning how to use new technology.

Difficulty completing familiar tasks: this includes driving, cooking a recipe from memory, balancing a checkbook or creating a shopping list.

Confusion with time or place: this includes missing appointments frequently or forgetting that an event has already taken place.

Repetitive Behaviors: may repeat the same actions, words, or ask the same questions over and over. 

Problems with spoken and written words: having trouble following or joining a conversation, struggling to name a familiar object, or having to stop in the middle of a conversation with no idea how to continue

Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps: being unable to locate an object or even determine the last place they had it. People with dementia may also put things in unusual places and may often accuse others of stealing those items.  

Decreased or poor judgment: trouble maintaining basic hygiene, neglecting to care for a pet, or falling victim to a scam.

Withdrawal from work or social activities: declining to attend favored social activities (e.g., church, cards, book club, etc.) or keeping up with things of interest (e.g., the news, favorite television shows, or sports teams). It’s important to note here are other reasons this can occur including hearing loss, depression, and lack of mobility. Either way, these symptoms by themselves should warrant consideration of a doctor’s visit.

Changes in mood, personality, and sleep: becoming easily confused, suspicious, depressed, fearful or anxious. This may occur at home when others are visiting or when away from home in an unfamiliar or even familiar setting. Some people with dementia are awake or asleep at odd hours of the day or night.

It's important to note that experiencing one or more of these signs doesn't necessarily mean a person has dementia. Many other conditions can cause similar symptoms (see box), so it's crucial to consult a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation and diagnosis.

Early diagnosis of dementia allows for timely interventions, treatment, and support services that can improve quality of life for individuals and their caregivers. Additionally, lifestyle modifications, cognitive exercises, and medications may help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.

If you notice signs in a loved one, let them know you’re concerned and offer to accompany them to the doctor. It may take repeated conversations to before someone recognizes that medical intervention may be necessary. But stay alert and don’t hesitate to step in if you feel they may be a danger to themself or others.

 For help addressing dementia concerns in others, visit alz.org/education.


Medical Problems Often Mistaken for Dementia
There are several treatable conditions can cause dementia-like symptoms. Some of the most common include:
– Alcohol abuse​
– Stroke
– Hearing loss
– Social isolation
– Loneliness
– Visual impairment
– Anxiety, depression or stress​
– Thyroid, liver, and kidney disorders
– Dehydration
– Blood clots, brain infections or tumors​
– Head injuries​
– Urinary infection
– Side effects of medication​
– Vitamin deficiencies
– Lyme disease and other infections

Dr. Lisa J. Downing-Forget, MD, MPH practices Geriatric Primary Care at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.


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