A dementia diagnosis is typically the end result of a progressive series of signs that started months or even years before the screening appointment. More often than not, early “red flags” were present, but family members assumed they were normal or were too afraid to address them head-on.
Because dementia is a progressive disease that intensifies over time, early diagnosis and treatment are essential.
The sooner you know a loved one has dementia, the sooner you can make the necessary lifestyle changes to slow down its progression and begin making a long-term memory plan that includes your spouse or parent’s wishes.
“Normal” age-related memory loss vs. dementia
Age-related memory loss is normal and not the same as dementia. One of the most significant differences is that “normal” memory loss is fleeting, sporadic, and it doesn’t increase significantly over a short period of time. Non-dementia-related memory loss is also less likely to be associated with confusion, mood swings, or other unusual signs of agitation. To put this difference into context, while we all misplace our keys every once in a while, it’s exceedingly rare that we’d temporarily forget our way home from our neighborhood grocery store.
Temporary or situational memory loss can also occur due to poor diet and lifestyle choices, depression, medication side effects, or undiagnosed medical conditions (like a UTI). This is why it’s so critical to be open and honest about any changes in memory or mental fog. A general physician is the first rung of support as you figure out the cause of memory changes.
Very early signs of dementia
The first and earliest signs of dementia are easy to miss because the majority of them read like “whoops, I forgot,” scenarios such as:
- Misplacing keys
- Forgetting a name or a word for something
- Missing an appointment or a social date
- Not remembering the exact day/date after days at home in a row
- Forgetting an item or two on the grocery list
- And so on
With dementia, these episodes occur with greater frequency and may co-exist with states of confusion or mental fogginess.
Other very early signs of dementia are:
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Trouble finishing projects that used to be straightforward
- Having to read a familiar receipt or set of instructions over and over to follow them through
- Increased moodiness, angry outbursts, or irritation
You can see why these are easy to miss at first, but more frequent repetition of this type of forgetfulness warrants professional dementia screening by a physician or neurologist.
Signs of early dementia
Those very early signs cumulatively turn into more consistent and significant signs of dementia. Examples include:
- Difficulty remembering recent events (At first, your loved one may cover these “senior moments” out of embarrassment. However, in quick time, they will no longer have the ability to hide their forgetfulness from spouses and close friends/loved ones)
- Trouble performing daily tasks
- Inability to track days, dates, times with any consistency
- Asking the same questions repeatedly OR telling the same stories often, in a short period
- Apathy, withdrawal from social life or favorite activities, and/or depression
- Unusual angry or frustrated outbursts
- Difficulty with problem-solving or working through typical challenges
- Trouble finishing crosswords, word searches, or puzzles
- Not remembering where they are or how they got there
- Wandering and getting lost in familiar shopping centers or their neighborhood
- Struggling to read, make good spatial decisions (which affects driving and walking), or judging distance
- Trouble following or participating in a conversation (they may lose their train of thought and begin rambling or repeating the same things over and over)
- Losing words without being able to recall them in a reasonable amount of time
It is far better to learn that you were overly concerned about normal, age-related memory loss than to find out a loved one has had dementia for months or longer without access to necessary early treatment and support.
Research shows that certain medications, as well as a dementia-supportive diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes, slow down dementia’s progression, allowing those with dementia to live more independently for longer. That said, a care plan must be put in place to ensure the person with dementia and their caregiver(s) have the support required to enjoy a high-quality of life.
By the mid-stage of dementia, there is no denying something is wrong. People with mid-stage dementia can’t be left home alone without spouses or family members worrying about them wandering off, forgetting to eat, or leaving the stovetop burning unattended. If someone with dementia insists on driving, family members worry they’ll get in a fender bender or have trouble finding their way back home.
The middle-stage of memory loss is evidenced by:
- Continued behavioral and personality changes
- Increased agitation in the later afternoon/evening (often referred to as Sundowning)
- Inability to read or follow instructions
- Not remembering words, faces, names, or yesterday’s activities
- No longer being able to play favorite games or to follow along with television or movie plots
- Not remembering to take medication
- Inability to manage money, do basic math, or figure out the correct change or tip when at a store or restaurant
- Insomnia or noticeable sleep changes
If you are the spouse or family caregiver for something with mid-stage dementia, you can no longer go it alone. Individuals with mid-stage dementia require 24/7 care and monitoring, which is impossible for one person to handle on their own. Doing so leads to caregiver fatigue and burnout.
Get Support In the Early Stages
Those early signs of dementia are a call-to-arms. Once you have a diagnosis, it’s time to activate a well-rounded care plan that ensures both the person with dementia – and family caregivers – have the support they need to optimize quality of life. This includes caregivers getting much-deserved time off via respite care, adult daycare, or residential memory care services to prevent burnout.
If you or a loved on is at risk of suffering from caregiver burnout, read our helpful resource below.