Dementia is a life-changing condition that can be heartbreaking for both the person diagnosed and their loved ones. Over time as the illness worsens, it can almost feel like you’ve lost a family member. A key to mitigating some of the risks of dementia (the umbrella term for conditions that cause cognitive decline) and Alzheimer’s disease (the most common cause of dementia) is by preparing a caregiving strategy to help protect the loved one. The best way to make sure your loved one is safe and has effective caregiving is by catching the development of dementia early, giving you time to work with their doctor and research expert resources in preparation for their potential decline. But how can you spot the signs of dementia in its early stages?
It’s not uncommon to forget things, especially as we get older, but there can be a level of forgetfulness where it begins to routinely disrupt your life. What would be an example of this? Things like struggling to follow instructions or repeatedly asking the same questions over and over again show a weakening in short-term memory that can become worrying. You may notice your loved one getting lost in places that should be familiar to them. They may also start misplacing things fairly often. These can all be signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can be an early warning sign of dementia. At times, the individual may even forget the day and time.
Struggling to speak can be incredibly frustrating. We’ve all suffered with having the word right on the tip of our tongue before, but not being able to say it. For people with dementia, they may struggle to find the right word often. This condition is called aphasia, and it can be a sign of damage to the brain, like with dementia. This can manifest in a number of ways, like confusing related words (shirt and coat) or descriptions instead of words (“talking box” instead of cellphone). Sometimes, they may just be at a loss to find the right word. If English is their second language, they may forget to speak it and return to their first language. As the condition worsens, this can become more regular or make full conversations difficult.
Losing your sense of time and place, forgetting where you are exactly, combined with a struggle to speak correctly can be confusing and scary. This confusion can be a sign of the progressive brain damage that’s caused by dementia, and it can increase as the condition and person ages. One sign of a worsening case of dementia can be a form of confusion called sundowning. This is a heightened state of confusion and stress that occurs in the late afternoon into the evening and is common in mid-to-late stage dementia patients.
Another early sign of dementia is a change in the person’s personality or moods. This might be tough to spot, since there could be a number of explanations for a change. Dementia influences personality changes in a few ways; by damaging the frontal lobe, for example, dementia can make a person more impetuous or rude, since that section of the brain controls impulses. They may also become more listless or passive since the frontal lobe also controls motivation and focus. Another common personality change you may see is the person becomes more irritable or anxious, due in part to the confusion they may feel. What you should take from this isn’t that there’s a specific personality change that could happen to every potential dementia sufferer, but that personality changes in general are common with this disease.
Recent studies have found that one of the earliest signs of dementia is increasing difficulty navigating, not just in finding your way around, but in interacting with, the world too. Researchers have found that people with signs of preclinical Alzheimer’s struggled to form cognitive maps that help them to traverse the world. This means that they may struggle to mentally figure out how to get from Point A to Point B, even if it’s a trip they regularly make. Dementia has also been linked with other visuospatial detriments, chiefly weakening depth perception. Each of these symptoms separately can be a hinderance and frustration; together, they can make it noticeably difficult just getting around.
As dementia causes the brain to lose cells, many executive functions can also be harmed. Two that are noticeable are the abilities to problem-solve and to plan ahead. One study tested two groups of participants on their planning and problem-solving abilities, where one group was made up of Alzheimer’s patients. The study found that the Alzheimer’s patients were less accurate in their results and less efficient in their methods. The researchers note that the “results are in agreement with previous studies,” showing a well-established link.
So, what does this mean for you and your loved ones, especially as we get older? The issue here isn’t a matter of one sign showing up occasionally. Struggling with problem-solving isn’t uncommon. A mood shift can happen, though this can sometimes be a sign of many different things. Almost everyone gets lost at some point. It’s a concern of proportion.
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While many of the early symptoms of dementia can be easily confused for fairly benign bouts of forgetfulness or common occurrences that happen to everyone, if you begin to notice numerous symptoms on a regular basis with a loved one, you should talk to their doctor immediately about your concerns. This is especially true if they begin to interfere with day-to-day tasks, showing a worrying severity and progressing symptoms. A doctor can give you and your loved one support and assist in finding answers and maybe a diagnosis. While a confirmation of dementia isn’t the happy news you may be hoping for, at least you can be proactive and immediately start to plan and mitigate the progression of the condition.
Alzheimer’s Association — 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s