5 Early Warning Signs of Dementia: How to Recognize Them and What to Do
Plus, how getting a diagnosis sooner can improve your quality of life.
When you misplace your phone, forget what day of the week it is, or find your reading glasses in the refrigerator (hey, it happens!), it's not unusual to wonder whether these lapses are a warning signs of something more serious than spaciness. But because there is no cure for Alzheimer's disease (AD), frontotemporal dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies—three of the most common causes of cognitive decline—many people may be reluctant to find out whether they might actually be developing dementia. But experts say that putting your head in the sand is a mistake.
"Getting a dementia diagnosis sooner rather than later has several advantages," says Peter Ross, founder and CEO of Senior Helpers, one of the nation's biggest and best providers of in-home senior care. "While there is no cure for dementia, early detection and treatment can help slow its progression and improve quality of life."
Bruce Albala, PhD, clinical professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, notes that certain causes of dementia are treatable. "While AD is the most common cause for progressive dementia, many of the non-progressing forms of cognitive impairment are often the result of treatable conditions such as depression, hypothyroidism, folate (vitamin B) deficiency, etc. Even some of the progressive dementias are due to other neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease, which can be treated."
Albala also points out that there are promising drugs on the horizon that may slow the progression of AD, as well as medications that help treat the symptoms. "If you know the actual underlying cause for the cognitive impairment or dementia and the currently approved treatments are not as helpful as one would like, there is usually the opportunity to be assessed to be included in a clinical research trial where the latest experimental medications and treatments are being tested," he tells Best Life.
"If a person, especially those older than 55 years of age, have any of the early warning signs [of dementia] and they last for more than a couple of weeks, the individual should seek medical assessment by a healthcare practitioner," says Albala. With that in mind, read on for five early dementia warning signs.
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You struggle with routine activities.
If something that used to be easy for you, like throwing together a quick dinner, doing a load of laundry, or logging into your bank account is suddenly a challenge, it could be a red flag, says Ross.
"Difficulty with planning or problem-solving, [such as] struggling to follow a recipe or pay bills," may be a warning sign of dementia, he says, stressing that "early warning signs of dementia can be subtle, and may vary from person to person."
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You get lost easily.
Getting lost in a familiar location or losing track of time are both warning signs that something could be going on with your cognition, Ross says.
If you find yourself becoming disoriented frequently, consider making an appointment with your doctor to find out what's going on. "The most important thing for the worried patient or family and friends to know is that many of the causes for cognitive impairments and even dementias can be treated," Albala adds.
Your fingers don't seem to work.
Fine motor skills are affected by dementia, and Ross says the first thing someone with early-stage dementia may notice is that they have difficulty tying their shoelaces or buttoning their shirt.
While trouble with motor skills is something to get checked out by a healthcare practitioner, there's no need to panic. "Not all cognitive impairments will progress to the more severe form as to be dementia," says Albala.
You can't find the word you're looking for.
We've all blanked on a word that was on the tip of our tongue a moment ago, but if you find it happening regularly, it could be a sign that it's time to be assessed for cognitive issues.
"Language difficulties—struggling to find the right words or repeating the same words or phrases," are a hallmark of dementia, says Ross.
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Again, moodiness alone is not a sign of dementia—but changes in your usual mood or behavior, such as becoming withdrawn, irritable, or anxious, may be, says Ross. This is one reason getting an early diagnosis can be helpful for everyone concerned.
"[A diagnosis] provides an explanation for the changes in memory, thinking, and behavior that have been noticed," Ross tells Best Life. "This can be a relief for both the person with dementia and their family, who may have been worried about the cause of these changes."
Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.