Early Stage Dementia: Signs, Symptoms and Care

December 18, 2019 | Blog | Reading Time 8:00 Minutes

Dementia is an umbrella term that encompasses many different memory impairment diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease, Vascular dementia and frontotemporal dementia.

When you first notice the early warning signs of dementia in someone you love, you may feel overwhelmed with all that a possible diagnosis could mean. But today, experts know more than ever about how to help people with dementia live full, satisfying lives. By learning about dementia signs and dementia treatment, you can help your friend or family member get the diagnosis they need early enough to maintain a strong and satisfying connection with them for years to come.

People living with early stage dementia often know they have a disease that affects memory. They may find this realization frightening or disorienting. Some people try to hide their memory impairment while others grow depressed and withdrawn as a result of their illness. Support from a caring friend or family member can do a lot to help change life for the better. Here’s what you need to know about early stage dementia, including:

  • What the early stage of dementia looks like
  • How to handle the situation
  • The dementia treatment and memory care options available to you

Early Warning Signs of Dementia

There’s a saying: When you know one person with dementia, you know one person with dementia.

Each individual experiences the symptoms of their illness differently. Memory loss is one of the most common symptoms but it’s also common to see early warning signs that don’t revolve around memory impairments at all. Early warning signs of dementia may include:

  • Memory loss
  • Depression
  • Loss of fine motor skills and difficulty walking
  • Trouble communicating
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation regarding time and place
  • Hallucinations

Often, depression is the first clue that something is wrong. Anyone over age 65 who has not previously experienced depression but suddenly starts to seem sad, hopeless, fearful or withdrawn could be entering the first stages of dementia. People with vascular dementia often realize they are starting to lose their cognitive function and become depressed as a result.

The inability to prepare simple meals, drive a car or hold a conversation can also signify dementia. Other early dementia symptoms can include forgetting the time or place, misplacing items or becoming confused about daily tasks. Of course, everyone experiences occasional memory lapses in which they mistake the day or put an item in the wrong place. But if your relative’s keys are regularly turning up in the refrigerator or if dirty plates are showing up in the cupboards alongside clean ones, it’s time to consider getting help from a medical professional.

With some forms of dementia, the first signs are more disturbing. For instance, some people’s dementia begins with delusions or hallucinations. A delusion is the sincere belief that something false is true. A person might believe they have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, for example, when the diagnosis never happened. A hallucination, on the other hand, is sensing something that isn’t there. A person having hallucinations might smell food burning, hear a child crying or see an animal in the room when in fact nothing is burning, the child is silent and no animal is nearby.

While dementia does affect memory, it impacts much more than that. Memory may seem crystal clear, but if something else appears different with your friend or family member, get it checked out early to ensure it isn’t the first signs of dementia.

Types of Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is the best known and most common form of dementia, but it is only one of many illnesses and injuries that can cause dementia symptoms. Other forms of dementia include vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy Bodies and frontotemporal dementia. Each of these diseases proceeds somewhat differently from the others.

  • Alzheimer’s diseaseThe early signs of Alzheimer’s disease include lethargy, loss of interest in activities, loss of short-term memory, mood swings and mild language problems.
  • Vascular dementia – Vascular dementia’s early symptoms include confusion, urinary incontinence, gait disturbance, problems with balance and coordination and trouble speaking or understanding speech.
  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies – People with early stage Lewy Body dementia often experience disturbed sleep, well-formed hallucinations, delusions, gait imbalances and confusion that comes and goes.
  • Frontotemporal dementia – Frontotemporal dementia comes in two types — behavioral variant and primary progressive aphasia. Behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia first shows up as changes in judgment, conduct, foresight and empathy. Frontotemporal dementia with primary progressive aphasia typically affects people under 65 and exhibits as language problems.

Other forms of dementia can result from factors such as normal pressure hydrocephalus, hypothyroidism, depression, vitamin B12 deficiency or late-onset schizophrenia. Some of these forms of dementia can be reversible through treatment. Each has its own distinguishing presentation that includes dementia and other problems, but the dementia is not usually as severe as it is for people with Alzheimer’s or another form of irreversible cognitive change.

What to Expect in Early Stage Dementia

People in the early stage of dementia have trouble functioning. At first, these problems may not impact common tasks, but as the dementia progresses it will interfere with their everyday lives. They may face challenges with handling finances, preparing a meal, holding a conversation or sticking with a task long enough to finish it.

Many people with early stage dementia can still drive, volunteer, work and care for themselves independently. Often, people in this stage want to retain their independence for as long as possible, and while they may appreciate you looking in on them, they probably will not relish constant oversight.

However, it’s possible for dementia to remain undiagnosed until a person is no longer capable of driving, cooking or caring for themselves. Perhaps the person compensated effectively for the changes they were experiencing or maybe they simply stopped going out as often so friends and relatives didn’t notice the changes. In these cases, the person’s limitations may come as a shock to their family and friends.

When possible, early diagnosis is very helpful. It allows the patient to express their own wishes concerning estate plans, medical care and end-of-life directives. Some causes of dementia can also be halted or slowed with treatment.

Dementia Treatment Options

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, dementia with Lewy Bodies, frontotemporal dementia or most other types of dementia. However, medications can help manage the symptoms. For example, a doctor could prescribe one of three brands of Aricept, a drug that can improve function and cognition by increasing acetylcholine levels in the brain. Alternatively, a doctor may prescribe Memantine, which improves memory and cognition by blocking glutamate’s activity in the brain.

In addition to medication, improving diet, exercise, sleep and stress management may help manage the symptoms of dementia. People with vascular dementia often have diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. Bringing those underlying issues under control can slow the advancement of their dementia.

An early diagnosis also lets you know that your friend or family member’s odd behavior is likely not intended personally. Withdrawal, loss of empathy and aggression are simply part of many people’s experiences with dementia.

How to Support Someone with Dementia

When you first learn of a friend or relative’s dementia diagnosis, your first instinct will likely be to think about caregiving and life management before emotional needs. Those are all important areas to address, but it’s also important to remember that people with dementia still love conversation, food, attention and fun. In fact, they may appreciate those things now more than ever. As Dr. Jennifer Bute, a physician who now lives with dementia herself, often says, “When facts are forgotten, feelings remain.”

How can you be a good source of support to someone with dementia? Start by visiting them, then follow these tips:

  • Speak simply and directly.
  • Avoid questions or choices as much as possible.
  • Take a photo album to look at together, play a game, listen to music or reminisce together about the past.
  • Read aloud to the person from a book they enjoy.
  • If faith is important to them, consider praying or meditating together.
  • Accept what your friend has to say as fact even if it’s wrong.

Some people with early stage dementia enjoy going out to restaurants, but it’s best to choose simple, uncrowded places where you can help with ordering if necessary. Other people like to go to movies, plays or concerts even if they don’t understand all that’s happening. However, new experiences can prove increasingly challenging as dementia progresses, so stay alert to any sign that your relative is growing uncomfortable and be ready to move to a more familiar environment if necessary.

More than anything, your presence in their life can be comforting, reassuring and helpful to a person living with dementia.

Dementia Care: Choices and Opportunities

Most people with dementia live at home with their families in the early stages. But as their support needs increase, many people move to a memory care community that can provide the help they need while maximizing their abilities.

The best setting for a person with dementia is the one in which he or she can take part in the things they enjoy most and pursue a life of purpose and fun in a safe and supportive setting. People with dementia can live full lives, engaging in gardening, games, reading, music, hobbies, friendships and spiritual practices with a little help from friends, family and care partners. Choosing the right care option for you and your family may take time and research, but the benefits to everyone involved can be lifechanging.

The Brielle offers memory care for individuals with early, mid or late stage dementia. Our signature memory care programs use research-based techniques to stimulate the brain and provide a fun environment that keeps residents safe, healthy and happy. If you have questions about dementia, what to expect from the early stages and how to find the best memory care options for your friend or relative, contact us. We’re here to help you make the right decision for your family.