The 5 Symptoms of Dementia and Early Warning Signs
December 06, 20224 min read
From age 50 on, it’s not unusual to have occasional trouble finding the right word or remembering where you put things.
But persistent difficulty with memory, cognition and ability to perform everyday tasks might be signs of something more serious.
What is dementia?
Dementia isn’t actually a disease, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s a catch-all term for changes in the brain that cause a loss of functioning that interferes with daily life. It can diminish focus, the ability to pay attention, language skills, problem-solving and visual perception. Dementia can also make it difficult for a person to control his or her emotions and can even lead to personality changes.
Roughly 6.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, though many experts say that number is probably higher. And its prevalence is projected to reach nearly 13 million by 2050, according to a 2022 report from the Alzheimer's Association. Globally, over 55 million people have dementia, the World Health Organization estimates.
Diseases that cause dementia
These conditions are the leading causes of dementia. Many patients have mixed dementia, a combination of two or more types, such as Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
- Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is characterized by amyloid plaques and tangled fibers in the brain and by a loss of connections between nerve cells. Damage initially appears in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory formation, and gradually spreads.
- Vascular dementia. The second most common type of dementia results from damage to the vessels that supply blood to the brain. It tends to affect focus, organization, problem-solving and speed of thinking more noticeably than memory.
- Lewy body dementia. Abnormal protein deposits in the brain, called Lewy bodies, affect brain chemistry and lead to problems with behavior, mood, movement and thinking.
- Frontotemporal disorders. Degenerative damage to the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes is the most common cause of dementia in people age 65 and younger. Symptoms might include apathy; difficulty communicating, walking or working; emotional changes; and impulsive or inappropriate behaviors.
If someone is showing signs of dementia, it’s important to see a medical expert who can conduct tests and come up with a diagnosis. Several, often treatable, conditions — from infections to a vitamin deficiency — can cause dementia-like symptoms, so it’s necessary to rule them out first.
If it is dementia, you’ll want to plan how you will manage care, especially as the condition progresses.
5 warning signs of dementia
Here are some symptoms to watch for:
1. Difficulty with everyday tasks. Everyone makes mistakes, but people with dementia may find it increasingly difficult to do things like keep track of monthly bills or follow a recipe while cooking, the Alzheimer’s Association says. They may also find it hard to concentrate on tasks, take much longer to do them or have trouble finishing them.
2. Repetition. Asking a question over and over or telling the same story about a recent event multiple times are common indicators of mild or moderate Alzheimer's, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
3. Communication problems. Observe if a loved one has trouble joining in conversations or following along with them, stops abruptly in the middle of a thought or struggles to think of words or the name of objects.
4. Getting lost. People with dementia may have difficulty with visual and spatial abilities. That can manifest itself in problems like getting lost while driving, according to the Mayo Clinic.
5. Confusion about time and place. If someone forgets where they are or can’t remember how they got there, that's a red flag . Another worrisome sign is disorientation about time — for example, routinely forgetting what day of the week it is, says Jason Karlawish, M.D., a neurologist and professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine and codirector of the Penn Memory Center.
Some people who experience memory loss or have difficulty with attention, decision-making language or reasoning may have a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The condition causes a noticeable decline, but the changes are less severe than with dementia and a person can still perform normal daily activities, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
People with MCI are at an increased risk of developing dementia.
Where can you find help?
When your loved one is displaying troubling symptoms, a trip to their local GP is often the first step. But to get a definitive diagnosis, you’ll need to see a specialist such as a neurologist, geriatrician or geriatric psychiatrist.
If you can’t find one, the National Institute on Ageing recommends contacting the neurology department of a nearby medical school. Some hospitals also have clinics that focus on dementia.
Specialists will want to know about the patient’s medical history and habits (Do they exercise? Are they a smoker?) as well as their family medical history.
Recent research suggests that a prevalence among even members of your extended family can increase your dementia risk. And modifiable factors like high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes and insufficient physical activity can increase a person’s risk for dementia.
Doctors also will conduct physical and neurological exams to rule out other treatable causes for dementia symptoms.