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Signs of Dementia: Warnings and Next Steps

Medically reviewed by Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Posted on June 30, 2022

If you’re familiar with the challenges of life with Alzheimer’s disease, you may be interested in exploring the early signs of dementia. However, it can be tough to distinguish between a serious issue and a minor lapse in brain function, particularly because some of the early signs of dementia can be easy to overlook.

Common warning signs include a shorter attention span, mood swings, memory problems, and disorientation. In addition, people with early signs of dementia may have a hard time recalling the names of people they know and recognizing familiar places.

Although it’s easy to jump to conclusions, it’s important to remember that only a professional can diagnose Alzheimer’s or other conditions that may be responsible for cognitive changes. Many people experience mild cognitive impairment (MCI) that might not progress to a more severe condition. MCI is sometimes considered a normal part of aging and may improve with lifestyle changes. Additionally, some types of dementia are the result of temporary issues, such as an infection or a stressful event, or may be a symptom of another neurodegenerative disease process that is progressive and permanent.

Here are some of the signs that members of myALZteam noticed and what you can do if you suspect you or a loved one might be experiencing any of these symptoms.

How Dementia Affects Different People

Dementia is a group of symptoms indicating impaired brain function or cognitive decline caused by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Not everyone with dementia has the same experience. Some forms of dementia progress rapidly, but others don’t.

Potential early warning signs include:

  • Confusion about what day or time it is
  • Difficulty with familiar tasks, such as preparing a meal or getting dressed
  • Lack of decision-making and problem-solving skills
  • Memory loss
  • Mood and personality changes
  • Poor concentration
  • Sleep changes
  • Trouble following a conversation or thinking of words

Because dementia causes confusion, people with cognitive impairments may exhibit poor judgment. For instance, they might dress in warm clothes on a hot day or forget to turn off the stove. Trouble maintaining normal routines of daily life, such as using a razor and combing hair, can lead to hygiene concerns. People living with dementia can become frustrated with themselves and others, exhibiting signs of anger, withdrawal, or low self-esteem. Paranoia, hallucinations, and anxiety can also accompany dementia.

What myALZteam Members Have Said

Members of myALZteam have described how they first recognized signs of dementia in themselves and others. One member shared:

“When my forgetfulness started affecting my performance at work, I decided it was time to get checked out by a neurologist. I’m 60 years old and want to work until 67. At this rate, I don’t see how it can happen, and it’s scary. He then sent me to a neuropsychologist. I had that four-hour test today, and I think I did horribly. Almost in tears when I would draw a blank and feel kind of lost. I go back in one week. Today I totally forgot that I was supposed to take my grandson to work. I made excuses and told him I lost track of time. This is not how I thought things would be at 60.”

Another explained, “I can see my husband has MCI. He has forgotten so much from the past 10 years. He has forgotten how to spell, where we keep things in the home, and directions to local eateries that we have been to many times. Now I understand why he will not choose a place to eat when we go out for the evening. The decision is too hard for him! Understanding that will help me be more patient in the future.”

Other Potential Causes of Dementia

If you notice potential warning signs of dementia, it’s important not to assume you know the reason they are occurring. Several issues may produce similar symptoms, including:

  • Brain tumors
  • Chronic alcohol abuse
  • Depression
  • Hormonal disorders
  • Infections (such as a urinary tract infection)
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Strokes
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

One of the first symptoms for people with Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss, whereas language and communication problems may be more typical for those who have had a stroke. Medical treatment, such as taking antibiotics to clear up an infection, can reverse some of the underlying causes of dementia.

Lifestyle changes — for example, exercising more or developing better sleep habits — can positively affect cognition. Also, emotional factors shouldn’t be underestimated for their potential impact on mental health. For instance, periods of high stress are known to produce cognitive issues.

One member of myALZteam shared, “My doctor told me my slight forgetfulness was from the stress of having too many ‘stakes in the fire’ (handling too many things at one time). I think he’s right, because when things are going smoothly, my memory is still really sharp.”

Documenting symptoms and meeting with a qualified health care provider will help you sort out the root of the problem.

What You Can Do

If you or someone you love is starting to show signs of dementia, now is the time to take action. An early diagnosis provides the best opportunity to address underlying issues and prevent hazardous situations, such as getting lost or accidentally setting a house fire. Start by scheduling an appointment with your primary care doctor for an initial evaluation, which may include lab testing, a physical exam, and a review of your medical history. Your physician may refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist or a psychiatrist, for additional cognitive and imaging tests.

Keep in mind that various strategies can help compensate and work around mild cognitive issues, allowing people to remain as independent as possible for as long as possible. For example, developing routines, setting electronic reminders, keeping a calendar, and posting helpful information on sticky notes can make it easier to stay on task.

If dementia begins progressing to Alzheimer’s, ask your health care provider about speaking with a social worker regarding additional resources. Supportive services, such as meal delivery programs, transportation, and a part-time caregiver, may be available. Home health care or residential care may be required, so planning for the future is always a good idea.

Talk With Others Who Understand

On myALZteam, the social network for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their loved ones, more than 84,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with Alzheimer’s disease.

Did you notice early signs of dementia in yourself or in someone you care for? Have any strategies been particularly useful in daily life? Share your story in the comments below. You can also start a conversation by posting on myALZteam.com.

Posted on June 30, 2022
All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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