Dementia is a broad term for conditions that can impair someone’s ability to remember, process information, and speak. Early indicators can include issues with short-term memory and word finding.

Although dementia symptoms can vary due to the underlying cause, some key symptoms are common early indicators of this condition.

This article will take a closer look at 11 of the most common early symptoms of dementia and what to do if you notice them.

Memory problems alone don’t mean you have dementia. The symptoms must significantly interfere with your everyday life for a doctor to diagnose dementia.

Dementia can cause impairments that affect:

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

Depending on the cause, if a doctor diagnoses dementia early, treatment options may help slow 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 have 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
  • difficulty finishing a task they started, like forgetting to turn off the oven after cooking

2. Difficulty finding the right words

Another early symptom of dementia is difficulty with communicating thoughts. A person with dementia may have difficulty 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 may get easily upset if their usual daily routine changes, or if they find themselves in unfamiliar situations.

Along with mood changes, you might also notice a shift in personality.

4. Apathy

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

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

5. Difficulty completing tasks

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

  • keeping track of bills and finances
  • following a recipe
  • playing a game that has a lot of rules

Along with completing familiar tasks, a person with dementia may find it hard to learn 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 find it difficult to follow conversations or TV programs.

8. A failing sense of direction

A person’s sense of direction and spatial orientation can start to worsen with the onset of dementia. They may have difficulty recognizing common landmarks and forget how to get to places that were once familiar.

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

9. Repetition

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

10. Difficulty adapting 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 may 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 losing the ability to make good decisions. For instance, a person with dementia may be unable to recognize dangerous situations. They may try to walk across a busy street without waiting until it’s safe or head outside wearing summer clothes when it’s snowing.

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

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

  • fatigue
  • lack of concentration
  • multitasking
  • some nutritional deficiencies

But if you or someone you know has dementia symptoms that aren’t improving or are getting worse, talk with a doctor.

A doctor or healthcare professional will likely refer the person to a neurologist. A neurologist can examine you or your loved one’s physical and mental health and determine whether the symptoms relate to dementia or some other issue. A neurologist may order:

  • memory and mental health 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:

If you’re concerned about your forgetfulness and don’t know of any neurologists, you can view doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.

At what age does dementia usually start?

Dementia is more common in people ages 65 and older. But in some cases, it can develop earlier.

What are the very early signs of dementia?

People in the early stages of dementia may have mood and personality changes. They may also have difficulties with short-term memory, such as forgetting things or events.

What is typically the most obvious early symptom of dementia?

One of the early symptoms of dementia that people tend to notice is short-term memory loss. This can involve forgetfulness, misplacing objects, and getting lost.

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’re not the same. While Alzheimer’s disease causes the majority of dementia cases, 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, you can contact a doctor and ask for a consultation. In some cases, medical experts can recommend treatments to slow down the progression of the disease.