Dementia is a collection of symptoms that can occur due to a variety of possible diseases. Dementia symptoms include impairments in thinking, communicating, and memory.
Possible causes of dementia include:
- Alzheimer’s disease, which is the leading cause of dementia
- brain damage due to injury or stroke
- Huntington’s disease
- Lewy body dementia
If you or your loved one is experiencing memory problems, don’t immediately conclude that it’s dementia. A person needs to have at least two types of impairment that significantly interfere with everyday life to receive a dementia diagnosis.
In addition to difficulty remembering, the person may also experience impairments in:
Subtle short-term memory changes
Trouble with memory can be an early symptom of dementia. The changes are often subtle and tend to involve short-term memory. An older person may be able to remember events that took place years ago but can’t remember what they had for breakfast.
Other symptoms of changes in short-term memory include forgetting where they left an item, struggling to remember why they entered a particular room, or forgetting what they were supposed to do on any given day.
Difficulty finding the right words
Another early symptom of dementia is struggling to communicate thoughts. A person with dementia may have difficulty explaining something or finding the right words to express themselves. Having a conversation with a person who has dementia can be difficult, and it may take longer than usual to conclude.
Changes in mood
A change in mood is also common with dementia. If you have dementia, it isn’t always easy to recognize this in yourself, but you may notice this change in someone else. Depression, for instance, is typical of early dementia.
Along with mood changes, you might also see a shift in personality. One typical type of personality change seen with dementia is a shift from being shy to outgoing. This is because the condition often affects judgment.
Apathy, or listlessness, commonly occurs in early dementia. A person with symptoms could lose interest in hobbies or activities. They may not want to go out anymore or do anything fun. They may lose interest in spending time with friends and family, and they may seem emotionally flat.
Difficulty completing normal tasks
A subtle shift in the ability to complete normal tasks may indicate that someone has early dementia. This usually starts with difficulty doing more complex tasks like balancing a checkbook or playing games that have a lot of rules.
Along with the struggle to complete familiar tasks, they may struggle to learn how to do new things or follow new routines.
Someone in the early stages of dementia may often become confused. When memory, thinking, or judgment lapses, confusion may arise as they can no longer remember faces, find the right words, or interact with people normally.
Confusion can occur for a number of reasons and apply to different situations. For example, they may misplace their car keys, forget what comes next in the day, or have difficulty remembering someone they’ve met before.
Difficulty following storylines
Difficulty following storylines may occur due to early dementia. This is a classic early symptom.
Just as finding and using the right words becomes difficult, people with dementia sometimes forget the meanings of words they hear or struggles to follow along with conversations or TV programs.
A failing sense of direction
The sense of direction and spatial orientation commonly starts to deteriorate with the onset of dementia. This can mean not recognizing once-familiar landmarks and forgetting regularly used directions. It also becomes more difficult to follow a series of directions and step-by-step instructions.
Repetition is common in dementia because of memory loss and general behavioral changes. The person may repeat daily tasks, such as shaving, or they may collect items obsessively.
They also may repeat the same questions in a conversation after they’ve been answered.
Struggling to adapt to change
For someone in the early stages of dementia, the experience can cause fear. Suddenly, they can’t remember people they know or follow what others are saying. They can’t remember why they went to the store, and they get lost on the way home.
Because of this, they might crave routine and be afraid to try new experiences. Difficulty adapting to change is also a typical symptom of early dementia.
Forgetfulness and memory problems don't automatically point to dementia. These are normal parts of aging and can also occur due to other factors, such as fatigue. Still, you shouldn't ignore the symptoms. If you or someone you know is experiencing a number of dementia symptoms that aren’t improving, talk with a doctor.
They can refer you to a neurologist who can examine you or your loved one’s physical and mental health and determine whether the symptoms result from dementia or another cognitive problem. The doctor may order:
- a complete series of memory and mental tests
- a neurological exam
- blood tests
- brain imaging tests
Dementia is more common in people over the age of 65, but it can also affect younger people. Early onset of the disease can begin as young as the 30s, 40s, or 50s. With treatment and early diagnosis, you can slow the progression of the disease and maintain mental function. The treatments may include medications, cognitive training, and therapy.
You can take steps to improve cognitive health and reduce your or your loved one’s risk. This includes keeping the mind active with word puzzles, memory games, and reading. Being physically active, getting at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, and making other healthy lifestyle changes can also lower your risk. Examples of lifestyle changes include stopping smoking if you smoke and eating a diet rich in:
- omega-3 fatty acids
- whole grains
You can also reduce your risk by increasing your intake of vitamin D. According to the Mayo Clinic, some researchers suggest that “people with low levels of vitamin D in their blood are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia."