Dementia isn’t a single disease. Instead, it’s a broad term that describes a collection of symptoms. These symptoms can affect someone’s memory, as well as their ability to think, process information, and communicate with others.

According to the World Health Organization, more than 55 million people worldwide live with dementia, and more than 10 million new cases are diagnosed every year. And while Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, it’s not the only cause.

Although dementia symptoms can vary due to the underlying cause, there are some key symptoms that are common warning signs of this condition.

This article will take a closer look at 11 of the most common warning signs of dementia, as well as the causes, risks factors, and ways to prevent it.

Having memory problems alone doesn’t mean you have dementia. You need to have at least two types of impairments that significantly interfere with your everyday life to be diagnosed with dementia.

In addition to issues with memory, someone with dementia may also have impairments that affect their:

  • language skills
  • communication
  • focus
  • reasoning and problem-solving abilities

Depending on the cause, if dementia is diagnosed early, there may be treatment options to slow the progression of cognitive decline.

1. Subtle short-term memory changes

Having trouble with memory can be an early symptom of dementia. The changes are often subtle and tend to involve short-term memory. A person with dementia may be able to remember events that took place years ago, but not what they had for breakfast.

A person with dementia may also display other changes in their short-term memory, such as:

  • forgetting where they placed items
  • struggling to remember why they entered a particular room
  • forgetting what they were supposed to do on any given day

2. Difficulty finding the right words

Another early symptom of dementia is difficulty with communicating thoughts. A person with dementia may have a hard time explaining something or finding the right words to express themselves. They may also stop in the middle of a sentence and not know how to continue.

Having a conversation with a person who has dementia can be challenging, and it may take longer than usual for them to express their thoughts or feelings.

3. Changes in mood

A change in mood is also common with dementia. If you have dementia, it may not be easy to recognize this in yourself, but you may notice this change in someone else. Depression, for instance, is common in the early stages of dementia.

Someone who has dementia may also seem more fearful or anxious than they were before. They could get easily upset if their usual daily routine is changed, or if they find themselves in unfamiliar situations.

Along with mood changes, you might also notice a shift in personality. One typical type of personality change seen with dementia is a shift from being shy or quiet to being outgoing.

4. Apathy

Apathy, or listlessness, is a common sign in early dementia. A person with dementia may lose interest in hobbies or activities that they used to enjoy doing. They may not want to go out anymore or have fun.

They may also lose interest in spending time with friends and family, and they may seem emotionally flat.

5. Difficulty completing tasks

A subtle shift in the ability to complete common tasks is another possible early warning sign of dementia. This usually starts with difficulty doing more complex tasks, like:

  • balancing a checkbook
  • keeping track of bills
  • following a recipe
  • playing a game that has a lot of rules

Along with the struggle to complete familiar tasks, a person with dementia may also struggle to learn how to do new things or follow new routines.

6. Confusion

Someone in the early stages of dementia may often become confused. They may have trouble remembering faces, knowing what day or month it is, or figuring out where they are.

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 recently met.

7. Difficulty following storylines

Difficulty following storylines is a classic early symptom of dementia. People with dementia often forget the meaning of words they hear or struggle to follow along with conversations or TV programs.

8. A failing sense of direction

A person’s sense of direction and spatial orientation commonly starts to get worse with the onset of dementia. They may have difficulty recognizing once-familiar landmarks and forget how to get to familiar places they used to have no trouble finding.

It may also become more difficult to follow a series of directions and step-by-step instructions.

9. Repetition

Repetition is common in people with dementia due to memory loss and general behavioral changes.

The person may repeat daily tasks, such as shaving or bathing, or they may collect items obsessively. They also may repeat the same questions in a conversation or tell the same story more than once.

10. 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.

11. Poor judgment

Another consequence of cognitive decline is the loss of the ability to make good decisions. For instance, a person with dementia may not be able to recognize dangerous situations. They may try to walk across a busy street without waiting until it’s safe to do so, or head outside in summer clothes when it’s snowing outside.

Another hallmark of poor judgment with dementia is the inability to use good financial judgment. Someone who was usually careful with their money may start giving money away to people or causes they hardly know.

In essence, dementia is caused by damage to the nerve cells in your brain.

But dementia is not one single condition. It’s essentially an umbrella term that covers a wide range of cognitive disorders. This includes Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60 to 80 percent of cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Damage to nerve cells in the brain can have many causes, including but not limited to:

  • the accumulation of specific types of proteins in the brain
  • lack of blood flow to the brain
  • trauma to the head
  • vitamin deficiencies
  • a reaction to certain medications

You can’t control some risk factors of dementia, such as your age, sex, gender, and family history. But other risk factors are what experts refer to as “modifiable risk factors.” This means that you have a chance to change them.

The most common risk factors include:

  • Age. According to a 2020 study, increasing age is the biggest known risk factor for dementia. The majority of people with dementia are over the age of 65, and the risk of this condition increases as you get older.
  • Sex and gender. A 2016 review suggests that women are at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, while men seem to have a higher risk of developing other kinds of dementia, such as Lewy body dementia.
  • Family history. A family history of dementia is a known risk factor for several kinds of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Frontotemporal dementia also has a genetic element.
  • Vascular issues. According to 2005 research, specific factors that affect the health of your veins and arteries may increase your risk of dementia. These risk factors include:
  • Vitamin deficiencies. Some 2014 research suggests that a vitamin D deficiency may increase the risk of dementia.
  • Race. According to 2018 research, Latino and African American adults are at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. One reason for this may be due to inequities in healthcare.

The different types of dementia include the following:

  • Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia. Symptoms tend to progress gradually and cause slow decline, although it can progress more rapidly in some people.
  • Vascular dementia. Vascular dementia occurs when not enough oxygen gets to the brain. Stroke is one possible cause, but anything that impedes blood flow, such as narrowed blood vessels, can contribute to this condition.
  • Lewy body dementia. Lewy body dementia occurs when unusual amounts of a protein known as alpha-synuclein begin to collect in the brain. You may have trouble processing information and develop other symptoms, such as muscle stiffness and tremors.
  • Brain damage due to injury or stroke. When the brain is deprived of oxygen during an episode like a stroke or from an injury, brain cells begin to die, causing damage to the brain.
  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE develops after repeated incidents of head trauma. It can cause symptoms such as dementia and memory loss, as well as mood swings, paranoia, and feelings of aggression.
  • Frontotemporal dementia. Frontotemporal dementia can affect your behavior or language abilities, depending on what part of the brain is affected. Although experts haven’t identified a definite cause, it has a genetic element. And some researchers suggest that atypical protein structures called Pick bodies could play a role.
  • Huntington’s disease. Huntington’s disease is an inherited, progressive disease that affects the areas of the brain responsible for a person’s voluntary movements, among others. The typical age of onset is between 30 and 50 years old, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
  • Argyrophilic grain disease. Argyrophilic grain disease is a late-onset neurodegenerative disease that can cause symptoms of mild cognitive impairment in older adults.
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a rare and rapidly progressive disease that causes mental deterioration. There’s no treatment for this disease, which is caused by an infectious agent called a prion.

Forgetfulness and memory problems don’t automatically point to dementia. Memory lapses are a normal part of aging and can also occur due to other factors, such as:

  • fatigue
  • lack of concentration
  • multitasking

Still, don’t ignore the symptoms. If you or someone you know is experiencing a number of dementia symptoms that aren’t improving or are getting worse, talk with a doctor.

Your doctor or healthcare professional will likely refer you to a neurologist. A neurologist can examine you or your loved one’s physical and mental health and determine whether the symptoms are caused by dementia or some other cognitive issue. A neurologist 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 in some cases, it can also affect people in their 30s, 40s, or 50s.

With treatment and early diagnosis, you may be able to slow down the progression of dementia and maintain mental function for a longer period of time. The treatments may include medications, cognitive training, and therapy.

If you’re concerned about your forgetfulness and don’t already have a neurologist, you can view doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.

Although there’s no tried-and-tested way to prevent the onset of dementia, you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing this condition. This includes:

  • Staying mentally active. Try to keep your mind active with word puzzles, memory games, and reading.
  • Staying physically active. According to 2021 research, people who exercise regularly may be a lot less likely to develop dementia compared with people who don’t get much physical activity.
  • Not smoking. If you smoke, quitting can improve your vascular health as well as many other aspects of your overall health and well-being.
  • Boosting your intake of vitamin D. Take a daily vitamin D supplement or eat foods that are good sources of vitamin D.
  • Eating a balanced diet. A healthy diet has many benefits, including boosting your brain health. To lower your risk of dementia, try to eat a diet that’s rich in:

Dementia isn’t one condition. Instead, it encompasses a number of different conditions that affect the brain. These conditions cause cognitive decline that affects a person’s memory, communication abilities, thought patterns, and behavior.

It’s not uncommon to hear the terms “dementia” and “Alzheimer’s disease” used interchangeably. But they are not the same. Alzheimer’s disease does indeed cause the majority of dementia cases, but many other disorders can affect a person’s memory or ability to process information.

If you notice that you or a loved one is beginning to have trouble with some cognitive tasks, don’t ignore it. Contact your doctor and ask for a consultation. While there is no cure for some types of dementia, medical experts can discuss treatments to slow down the progression of the disease.