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7 Early Warning Signs of Dementia

Learn the seven early warning signs of dementia with Seniorly. Knowing these signs and symptoms of dementia can help you recognize them in loved ones.

By Emma Rodbro · Updated Apr 15, 2022

You’ve probably heard it before: an older loved one worrying that forgetting their keys means they’re developing dementia. Identifying the early signs of dementia is actually a little more complicated than that. While people with dementia often exhibit forgetfulness, there are some specific early warning signs of dementia that family members should know to look out for. Below outlines seven common early signs and symptoms of dementia.

What is dementia?

Before understanding the early warning signs of dementia, it’s important to understand what dementia is and how it impacts older adults. The Alzheimer's Association defines dementia as:

Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Memory loss is an example. Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia.

Dementia is a cognitive impairment of one’s mental, and sometimes physical, ability to perform normal, daily activities. Memory loss is a common symptom. Dementia is not a specific disease but a generalized description of similar symptoms across many different diseases that can impact memory and cognition.

Common early signs of dementia

While symptoms may vary based on the different type of dementia, common early signs of dementia include:

  1. Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  2. Inability to problem solve
  3. Confusion about time or place
  4. Driving issues
  5. Speech impairment
  6. Personality changes
  7. Withdrawal from social activities

Once you notice a loved one experiencing two or more types of memory impairment, it is time to consult a doctor for a mental health assessment. This article can help you get educated on the different signs of memory impairment, so that you’re better prepared to take care of loved ones when the time comes.

Difficulty performing familiar tasks

We all forget small things like keys from time to time, only to remember where we put them later on. This is entirely normal.

For signs of memory impairment, take note when a loved one suddenly experiences memory loss related to tasks they perform all the time. Look for signs such as an inability to follow a familiar recipe or recite a home address. These may be signs of more serious cognitive impairment. Consult your family medical history and make an appointment with a physician to be sure.

Inability to problem solve

When we do experience momentary memory loss, our reaction to the situation can be very telling. For example, when your loved one loses keys at home, are they able to retrace their steps in order to problem solve and find them? If connecting the dots seems harder than it should be, your loved one may be showing early signs of cognitive decline.

Confusion about time or place

Forgetting the time or date is relatively normal for people juggling a busy schedule. What’s not: forgetting where you are or how you got there. If you learn that a loved one becomes suddenly disoriented and unable to retrace the steps that got them to a certain location, they may be experiencing the first stages of dementia.

This sign of memory impairment is not to be taken lightly; wandering is one of the most dangerous side effects of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, and noticing the signs early on can help loved ones stay safe before things get worse. If you’re worried about a loved one with memory impairment, it’s important to get a physician’s diagnosis so you can understand how to move forward with memory care.

Driving issues

Driving can be hazardous as we get older; our vision declines and our reflexes slow down, leading to greater risk of getting into automobile accidents. This risk only increases in those with memory impairment; Dementia symptoms may affect driving, causing loved ones to lose the ability to recognize spatial relationships. People experiencing cognitive decline may also find that they get lost in familiar areas. Furthermore, memory changes related to dementia can be scary and uncomfortable, leading to the driver being distracted and emotional while on the road. To help your loved ones stay safe, consider volunteering to be their transportation or hiring an in-home caregiver to take on the responsibility instead.

Speech impairment

Sometimes we trip over our words or blank when we try to think of one in particular, getting that frustrating ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ feeling. However, this does not mean you are having the type of cognitive troubles that lead to memory decline. Look instead for moments when you use the wrong word to describe an object or have trouble recalling the name of a familiar object you use all the time. These moments may foreshadow the early stages of dementia. As symptoms get worse, you may notice that you have difficulty reading, writing, and speaking clear sentences.

Personality changes

If your loved one was always a happy-go-lucky person, and suddenly they’re experiencing personality changes such as anger or agitation, these could signify other underlying problems related to Dementia. As the disease progresses, inability to recognize people and places can lead to fear and anxiety, forever altering the loved one’s personality. Try to be understanding and patient with your loved one as they navigate these difficult changes. Even if they become angry and lash out, it is up to the caregiver to be supportive and react well to mood swings.

Withdrawal from social activities

The confusion brought on by dementia can lead to withdrawal from activities that your loved one used to enjoy. They may be embarrassed about not remembering faces or fearful that they will become agitated once they forget where they are. If you are concerned about a loved one with memory impairment becoming lonely or isolated, consider taking them to visit a local senior center or volunteer event. Having you there may help your loved one feel more comfortable while navigating new experiences.

Now that I know the symptoms of dementia, what can I do to help?

If you think you or a loved one has dementia, the next thing to do is talk to a doctor. There are a couple of tests that doctors use to determine whether or not a patient actually has dementia and what type of dementia. Treatment for dementia will vary greatly depending on the type of dementia - for instance, whether or not it’s Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia.

How to diagnose dementia?

Once you see a doctor, they will likely go through a process to diagnose the specific type of dementia and understand how it’s impacting the individual. The common process to diagnose dementia includes:

  • Reviewing family medical history
  • Performing a physical examination
  • Gathering laboratory tests
  • Neurological examination and cognitive testing
  • Brain imaging

Doctors will likely begin by reviewing your family medical history to see if you have any history or Alzheimer's or Parkinson's Disease. Then the patient will undergo a physical exam and several diagnostic tests, during which the doctor will ask about the patient’s lifestyle and symptoms. Blood and urine samples are often taken for laboratory testing.

A doctor may also decide to do a neurological exam, during which he or she will evaluate the patient for signs of memory impairment or memory loss. Brain imaging is sometimes done along with the neurological exam. If you are worried about yourself or a loved one developing dementia, consider making a doctor’s appointment to discuss your concerns.

If you have a loved one who has dementia and progressed to the point that they are in need of memory care, Seniorly is full of senior housing communities that specialize in memory care for those with Alzheimer's and other related dementias. You can start your search by entering your city or zip code in the search box below. 

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written by:
Emma Rodbro

Emma Rodbro

Emma Rodbro is Customer Success Lead at Seniorly.
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