What are the Early Signs and Symptoms of Dementia?
There are few diagnoses that are as scary as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease for aging adults. Even if we experience some cognitive hiccups, we don’t want to consider dementia as a possibility for ourselves or our closest family and friends; leading symptoms to often go overlooked. Although we don’t want to think about it or hope that any symptoms that are manifesting will go away, it’s important to identify dementia’s early warning signs and symptoms for several reasons. Early diagnosis gives a person:
- The opportunity to find treatments that may reduce their symptoms or slow progression of the disease, at least temporarily
- Time to put their lives in order while they are still thinking clearly, making sure that friends and family understand what their wishes are now for the time when they can no longer express them clearly
- The opportunity to plan for their care
- The option to participate in a clinical trial, thereby, receiving a new intervention that may prove helpful, especially important for a disease that presently has no cure
Perhaps the most well-known symptom in the early stages of dementia is memory loss, especially for Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are quite a few other symptoms you should be aware of since there are many types of dementia. Additionally, since everyone experiences memory hiccups at one time or another, it can be difficult to know which moments should cause alarm. Where does memory loss cross the line and become a sign of illness rather than a normal part of the aging process?
What is Dementia?
According to the National Institute on Aging, dementia is defined as, “the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering and reasoning — and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. These functions include memory, language skills, visual perception, problem-solving, self-management and the ability to focus and pay attention.”
Although some memory loss is a normal part of the aging process, dementia isn’t normal. While up to half of all persons over the age of 84 may have some form of dementia, many individuals live into their 90s and beyond without any signs of dementia at all.
Early Signs and Symptoms of Dementia
The early signs and symptoms of dementia can be very subtle, making them easy to initially overlook. Symptoms can vary greatly between individuals, even those with the same type of dementia, and may also vary depending on which type of dementia a person is dealing with. Moreover, an individual may be experiencing symptoms from more than one kind of dementia simultaneously.
Early Symptoms of Dementia
Despite all these factors and variables, dementia does have some common early symptoms which include:
- Short-term memory problems
- Problems with concentration
- Increased confusion
- Increased withdrawal and apathy
- Changes in behavior and personality
- Inability to do everyday tasks that were once easy
Unfortunately, these early symptoms are often dismissed as a normal part of aging, especially since they may develop gradually over long periods of time. However, they should not be ignored.
Dementia Warning Signs
If you or someone you know is experiencing several of the warning signs of dementia that are outlined below, a doctor should be consulted for a thorough assessment.
Memory loss that disrupts daily life — “Senior moments” are normal. You may temporarily forget someone’s name or an event such as a hairdresser appointment, only to remember it later. It happens. Someone with dementia forgets things more often and has trouble recalling details and events, especially those that have happened recently. They may forget important dates or events they’ve celebrated frequently in their life, such as birthdays and wedding anniversaries. They may ask the same questions over and over again, not realizing they’ve already done so and received an answer. Their need to use memory aids, such as written reminder notes or electronic devices, has increased dramatically.
Language difficulties — We all have an occasional problem in finding the right word to express what we want to say. That’s a normal age-related change. Language difficulties for a person with dementia are different from this. A person with dementia experiences new problems with words, both spoken and written. They may forget simple words or have trouble finding the right word which may cause them to make word substitutions — like calling a watch a “hand clock,” or a calculator a “number finder.” This can make it difficult to understand what they’re trying to say.
Language difficulties can also make it difficult for them to understand what others are saying to them. They may have trouble joining in on a conversation or following the flow of a conversation they are already having. They may stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue. They may repeat things they’ve previously stated.
Difficulty performing familiar tasks — A person with dementia may have problems performing simple everyday tasks. Examples can include activities such as not being able to prepare a food item they’ve made repeatedly in the past, forgetting the correct order of steps necessary to brush their teeth, having trouble remembering how to navigate to a familiar location or being unable to remember the rules of a favorite game.
Misplacing objects or storing objects in unusual places — We all occasionally misplace items like a key or wallet but are typically able to retrace our steps to locate them. Someone with early dementia, however, may frequently lose items and are not able to go back over their steps to find the items. They may also put objects in strange and unusual places, such as putting the car keys in the refrigerator or their toothbrush under their pillow. They may even go on to accuse others of stealing items they themselves have misplaced.
Withdrawal from work or social activities — Although it can be normal to tire from participating in activities, a person with dementia may lose interest in personal hobbies that they have previously enjoyed or have been very passionate about. For example, a person who has always enjoyed quilting and experienced great satisfaction in making beautiful creations for family or friends no longer takes an interest in the hobby anymore or has trouble completing the steps required to make a quilt. Someone who once enjoyed football season and keeping up with their favorite sports teams could lose interest in the game or have trouble keeping up with the statistics they once easily quoted. Knowing deep down that something is amiss, individuals experiencing these difficulties may as a result want to avoid social situations.
Changes in mood, behavior or personality — Although we all have times when we experience feelings of being sad or become irritable when our routines are disrupted, a person with dementia may experience mood swings that change rapidly for no apparent reason. They may experience a wide range of emotions including confusion, suspicion, depression, fearfulness, anxiety and feeling withdrawn. They may become easily upset, especially in places and situations where they are unfamiliar with or forced out of their comfort zone.
In variance to this, some persons with dementia can become more outgoing and much less inhibited. For example, a person who was previously quiet and soft-spoken may become boisterous and vulgar, exhibiting behaviors that are very uncharacteristic to the person they have always been or of the values they have always held.
Disorientation of location or time — It’s easy to become temporarily confused about the day of the week, especially when your days are no longer delegated by work and clearly defined schedules. A person with dementia may think they are back in some previous time period in their life, even reliving past events. They can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time—things that most people take for granted. They may also experience difficulties navigating familiar territories, both walking and driving. For example, a person with early symptoms of dementia may become disoriented in a mall they have shopped in for years or go for a walk in the neighborhood they have lived in for many years and get lost because they can’t remember how to get home. A person with dementia may forget where they are and not remember how they got there.
Difficulties understanding spatial relationships and visual images — A person with dementia may begin to have difficulties with spatial relationships. They may experience difficulties in judging direction or distance while driving. They may experience new problems comprehending written material or instructions. Problems determining color and contrast may also arise.
Decreased or poor judgment — We all make a bad decision now and then; however, a person with dementia may demonstrate changes in their judgment or decision-making processes. For example, they may use poor judgment in the handling of money by giving large amounts to telemarketers. They may wear shorts and a tank top outside in 30-degree weather, or they may wear their underwear over their clothes rather than under. They may not be as attentive to their grooming habits or may not keep themselves as clean as they once did.
Changes in planning or solving problems — A person with dementia may demonstrate changes in abstract thinking. This often shows up when it comes to finances and balancing the budget or checkbook. It’s possible they may have trouble doing basic sums or have trouble keeping track of the monthly bills. They may experience difficulties trying to follow a familiar recipe. Activities that have previously been easy now take much longer to accomplish than they once did.
Disorders or Illnesses with Symptoms Similar to Dementia
It’s important to know that these signs and symptoms can signal conditions other than dementia; therefore, one should not automatically assume someone has dementia just because they exhibit any of these signs or symptoms. The following conditions, illnesses and disorders can cause dementia-like symptoms:
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Hormonal disorders
- Excessive long-term alcohol consumption
- Brain tumors
Although some of these conditions are as serious as dementia, many of them can be treated, reversing the effects and symptoms of the disorder.
Speaking with Your Healthcare Professional
The early signs of dementia can be vague and very subtle. If you, or a family member or a friend, have several of these warning signs, it’s best to visit a doctor as soon as possible.
Individuals who are in the very early stages of dementia may be resistant to a doctor’s office visit, because of dementia-caused changes to the brain, they may not realize that anything is wrong. They could be in denial, while others see the changes but are fearful and afraid of having their worst fears confirmed.
It’s important to overcome their objections and help them get the medical attention they need. One way to do this is by encouraging them to visit the doctor for another reason or suggest a doctor visit for a symptom they are willing to admit to having. This symptom can be dementia-related but doesn’t have to be. Or, perhaps you can suggest they go to the doctor for a review of certain medications or a long-term condition. It’s important to get them to the doctor where they can get the medical attention they require.
If they continue to refuse to see a doctor, you may want to seek support by:
- Talking to others who are already caring for someone with dementia
- Calling the Alzheimer’s Association Helpline
- Speaking to an Eldercare Locator information specialist
When talking to someone who is experiencing frightening symptoms such as these, it’s important to give the person plenty of reassurance. Your calm and caring attitude can do wonders to help them overcome some of their fears and worries.
Dementia Care at The Brielle
At The Brielle, our memory care neighborhood in Staten Island, NY, offers programming that has been specifically adapted to assist residents who have memory impairments, fostering each resident’s social, intellectual, spiritual and physical well-being. Customized to the individual, our programming helps each resident to thrive by having meaningful interactions, building relationships with others and growing connections through positive approaches to socialization. Contact our friendly team to learn more.