Dementia is a broad term used to describe a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.
It is not a specific disease but rather a group of symptoms caused by various diseases or conditions that affect the brain. Early detection of dementia symptoms is crucial, as some causes are reversible with proper treatment.
Though memory loss is most commonly associated with dementia, there are many other signs that can appear years before memory problems emerge. Being able to recognize these subtle clues can lead to earlier diagnosis and intervention, improving the quality of life for both patients and caregivers.
This article explores seven frequently overlooked early signs of dementia that one needs to be aware of.
1) Subtle Short-Term Memory Changes:
One of the earliest symptoms of dementia is mild forgetfulness that goes beyond normal age-related memory loss. This can include routinely misplacing items, forgetting appointments or events, or struggling to retain information long enough to act on it, like forgetting what you were about to do when you walked into a room. These memory lapses are often most noticeable to friends and family.
While we all experience occasional forgetfulness, those exhibiting more persistent forgetfulness or mild confusion could be showing early signs of dementia. Keeping notes and reminders can help manage these symptoms for a while.
However, worsening short-term memory issues should prompt a medical evaluation to determine the cause.
2) Difficulty Completing Familiar Tasks:
Many types of dementia affect visual and spatial skills early on. This can make once simple tasks confusing. A person may have trouble driving to familiar locations, following recipes, or performing other routine duties they have done for years.
For example, someone who has been cooking the same meals for decades may suddenly struggle with improper measurements or forgetting ingredients. Or they might have difficulty operating appliances like the TV remote or microwave that they have used before with ease.
Losing the ability to complete common household tasks is often one of the more obvious early signs of dementia. These issues are not just normal signs of aging. Even small issues like forgetting to add salt to a recipe or being unable to program the coffeemaker can indicate problems with memory and cognition that may point to early-stage dementia.
3) Problems Finding the Right Words:
Another early indicator of dementia is struggling to communicate thoughts. A person might stop in the middle of a conversation, unable to recall a word or name. Or they may use overly generic language to describe specific things, calling any four-legged animal a “dog” for instance.
Verbal fluency loss can also show up as rambling speech or uncharacteristically vague descriptions. This symptom typically worsens as dementia progresses. If you notice a friend substituting unusual words or getting stuck during conversations, a medical exam can help determine if an underlying disorder is impacting their language abilities.
As the disease advances, the person may have more trouble coming up with the right words and phrases. In later stages, speech may be limited to just a few words or short phrases that make little sense to others. However, language skills vary widely in people with dementia. Some retain decent vocabulary and syntax for a long time.
4) Disorientation Regarding Time or Place:
Those in the early stages of dementia often start becoming confused about their current location or the time of day. A person might get lost in a familiar neighborhood, forget where they are, or be unable to follow directions.
They may forget what season it is or insist it’s a different year entirely. Wandering from home and getting lost is also common. Difficulty orienting to time and place tends to come and go at first but becomes more persistent as dementia advances.
If a loved one seems increasingly perplexed about where or when they are, dementia may be involved. This disorientation can be frightening and frustrating for the individual. They may recognize something is wrong but be unable to explain it.
Reassurance, patience, and keeping to a routine can help the person feel more grounded. Marking calendars and clocks around the house may also assist with orientation. Checking in frequently and gently re-orienting the person to the date, time, and location can provide comfort.
5) Difficulty Making Sound Judgments:
In early dementia, challenges with abstract thinking and reasoning can emerge. A person may struggle with concepts like numbers, distances, or values of money. Everyday decision-making can also become difficult. They might make questionable or impulsive choices about their finances, health, or safety with less regard for consequences.
Uncharacteristically, poor judgment and risky behavior in someone who was previously pragmatic could signify cognitive impairment. Mood and personality changes may accompany lapses in judgment as well.
Consulting a doctor can help determine if poor decision-making is related to treatable dementia or other health issues affecting cognition.
6) Problems Understanding Visual Information:
Some forms of dementia lead to progressive difficulty interpreting visual information. A person may have trouble reading, judging distances, or recognizing faces and common objects. For example, they might mistake a chair for an unfamiliar object or struggle to match clothing by color. Visuospatial deficits can also make driving unsafe, as a person may not respond properly to traffic signals or misjudge car distances.
If you notice someone close to you squinting often, getting lost in familiar surroundings, or having more trouble with tasks that require visual processing, it warrants a check-up to investigate the cause.
Difficulty with visual processing can start subtly but may gradually impact many aspects of daily living. Early intervention can help diagnose and treat reversible conditions.
7) Withdrawal From Social Activities:
Preserving a fulfilling social life requires strong cognitive skills. In the early stages of dementia, a person may start withdrawing from their usual social interactions and pastimes. They might stop seeing friends, lose interest in hobbies, or refrain from making conversation. This social isolation typically develops gradually and may precede other obvious symptoms.
Personality and behavioral changes can also occur as parts of the brain that regulate mood and inhibition deteriorate. If you notice someone close becoming unusually solitary or numb, it may signify dementia onset. Encouraging medical evaluation can identify treatable causes like depression, vitamin deficiencies, infections, or brain disorders.
Though dementia is progressive, catching it early allows more time to manage symptoms and plan care. Any noticeable and persistent decline in memory, thinking skills, or behavior warrants a discussion with your doctor, especially if it interferes with everyday function.
Certain medications, thyroid disorders, vitamin deficiencies, infections, depression, and other issues can cause cognitive changes resembling dementia.
Identifying and addressing these reversible factors as early as possible provides the best opportunity to improve cognition, delay further decline, and enhance overall well-being.