If Your Handwriting Looks Like This, It Could Be a Dementia Sign, Doctor Warns

This common indicator of cognitive decline often goes unnoticed.

As of now, there is no known cure for dementia or the diseases that most commonly cause it, such as Alzheimer's and Lewy body dementia. Access to treatment and management options make it crucial to catch the early symptoms of these devastating conditions, which affected nearly six million Americans in 2020—with that number expected to nearly triple to 14 million people in the next four decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"Memory problems are typically one of the first signs of cognitive impairment related to Alzheimer's disease," reports the National Institute on Aging (NIH), which also lists a decline in non-memory aspects of cognition "such as word-finding, vision/spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment" as other early symptoms of dementia. However, some warning signals are less well-known. Read on to find out about one surprising sign that may show up in your handwriting.

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Dementia affects the way our brains function.

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While people know that dementia affects the brain, many don't know exactly how it causes damage. A healthy human brain contains tens of billions of neurons—also known as nerve cells. These cells "process and transmit information via electrical and chemical signals," as described by the NIH, sending messages from one part of the brain to the other, as well as from the brain to different parts of the body. In other words, they're essential to how we function.

But Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia disrupt, injure, and eventually kill these neurons. "Connections between networks of neurons may break down, and many brain regions begin to shrink," explains the NIH. "By the final stages of Alzheimer's, this process—called brain atrophy—is widespread, causing significant loss of brain volume."

Various symptoms can indicate the onset of dementia.

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It makes sense that we typically think of problems like memory loss when it comes to dementia. But diseases that cause cognitive decline can have lesser-known symptoms that might seem unexpected—such as changes in mood or personality.

"People with dementia often develop apathy due to damage to the frontal lobes of their brain," explains the Alzheimer's Society. "This part of the brain controls our motivation, planning and sequencing of tasks." Dementia patients may appear to lose interest in other people and in activities they once enjoyed. Another symptom that some people may not associate with dementia is difficulty with numbers and money; patients may be unable to curb their spending, calculate numerical figures, or pay bills.

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The way we perform this everyday task may change in the early stages of dementia.

A senior citizen signing a document.
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The ability to perform one particular everyday task can be "one of the first indicators of dementia progression," warns Raymond Dacillo, Director of Operations for C-Care Health Services. Because Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia disrupt and damage brain cells, "this can interfere with day-to-day cognitive functions like reading and writing, and those who live with dementia may have a harder time performing these activities," explains Dacillo.

A change in handwriting can be a very early indicator of dementia. In an article published by the Wiley Online Library in June 2020, this change is described as one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer's disease: "The handwriting gets shaky, due to loss of muscle control, confusion, and forgetfulness. The symptoms get progressively worse. The handwriting becomes illegible and phonological spelling mistakes become inevitable."

"The physical act of writing is likely to be challenging for the person as the disease worsens over time," says Everyday Health. "The person may have trouble signing or initialing their name, and a signature may become indecipherable and letters will look more like scribbles."

Talk to your doctor about any symptoms of cognitive decline.

Female patient speaking with her physician in a doctors office
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"You should immediately contact a medical professional to determine the issue at hand," if you notice changes in handwriting, advises Dacillo. "If the medical professional diagnoses dementia or Alzheimer's, they can guide you in the next steps on how to take care of someone with dementia."

Noticing potential warning signs like memory loss, apathy, and changes in handwriting can be very helpful in getting an early diagnosis. Even though there is no cure for diseases like Alzheimer's, there are many reasons an early diagnosis is important. Doctors may be able to identify or rule out other causes for symptoms of dementia. "Some treatable conditions can produce symptoms similar to dementia," according to the Alzheimer's Society. "For example, vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disease, sleep disorders, alcohol abuse or depression. Other possible causes of confusion include poor sight or hearing."

If symptoms are caused by Alzheimer's or another type of incurable dementia, an early diagnosis can allow for a quicker approach to treatment. "Treatment of Alzheimer's disease and other dementias is typically most effective when started early in the disease process," notes the Alzheimer's Society. "This includes medications as well as some alternative therapies."

Luisa Colón
Luisa Colón is a writer, editor, and consultant based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Latina, and many more. Read more
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