Dementia Symptoms And Warning Signs

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Dementia is a condition that affects millions of people worldwide. While it most commonly impacts older adults, people as young as in their 30s can also develop it. Knowing the early signs and symptoms of dementia can help you get a head start on researching treatment options and connecting with a variety of support organizations. 

If you or a loved one already has dementia, it might also be beneficial to know what to expect in its later stages. Dementia is hard to face as it is, but going into the experience not understanding what’s happening to your body and mind can make it even more difficult to cope with. We’ll be discussing the different kinds of dementia, including their common symptoms and the usual methods of treatment.

Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with dementia?

Signs And Symptoms Of Dementia

Dementia is not always easy to recognize, particularly because the body naturally changes as we age. Although many different brain conditions lead to or involve dementia, there are some common symptoms to be on the lookout for. It’s important to be aware of these symptoms so that you can see your physician if they present themselves.

The following signs and symptoms may show up in any type of dementia:

  • Forgetting important things often and not remembering them later

  • Problems completing everyday tasks, such as preparing a meal

  • Getting lost more easily or not knowing where they are or what year it is

  • Excessive trouble finding the right word or substituting the wrong word

  • Trouble thinking, reasoning, and judging situations appropriately

  • Trouble telling what direction they are going or judging the distance

  • Rapid mood swings, confusion, suspiciousness, or losing inhibitions

  • Trouble starting activities on their own without prompting

  • Issues with understanding others

Early signs of dementia

The first signs of dementia might go mostly unnoticed. Why? Everyone forgets something occasionally, gets lost, or has other experiences and behaviors that could be construed as early symptoms of dementia— but only if they are happening consistently. It’s important to watch for patterns rather than just one instance of the symptom. Here is a list of several potential early signs of dementia that may help:

  • Forgetting recent events

  • Becoming confused more often

  • More difficulty concentrating than usual

  • Personality changes

  • Increasing apathy, withdrawal, or depression

  • Losing the ability to perform everyday tasks

  • Trouble following the storyline of a book, TV show, or movie

There is also an early sign of dementia test your doctor can give you. One test is a simple six-question inventory asking questions like the year, month, and time. You are also asked to count backward from 20 to 1 and say the months of the year in reverse order. When the test begins, they give you an address to remember. The last question on the test is to remember that address.

You can also take a screening test online. The SAGE Test is one that requires no special equipment. You can download and take it to find out if you show enough early dementia signs to be concerned about.

Early symptoms of dementia across genders

Dementia warning signs may vary from person to person. There are also some differences for certain groups of people. For example, signs of dementia in men may be somewhat different from signs of dementia in women. Verbal skills can deteriorate in dementia, but the rate of mental decline in these abilities is typically faster for women than for men. Women often have memory problems earlier in the course of dementia than men, too. Men who have depression are also more likely to develop dementia than women.

Different types of dementia

The symptoms someone will experience while living with dementia often vary depending on what type of dementia they have. Three different types of dementia are frontotemporal, Lewy body, and vascular, and each is unique in how it presents in the mind and body.

Mild cognitive impairment

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is when someone has more thinking or memory problems than other people their age. The symptoms are not as severe as other types of dementia, and they may improve, but people with MCI are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s or a related type of dementia. There is no single cause of MCI, though family history and medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and normal pressure hydrocephalus can put people at risk. Symptoms of MCI may include the following: 

  • Misplacing things often

  • Forgetting about important events or appointments

  • Having difficulty finding the words for what you want to say

Frontal lobe dementia 

Frontal lobe dementia, also called frontotemporal dementia, usually happens to people between the ages of 45 and 64. Frontal lobe dementia symptoms can include:

  • Changes in behavior, judgment, and personality.

  • Problems with written or spoken language skills.

  • Problems initiating movement.

  • Problems with walking, posture, and stiffness in the upper body. 

  • Issues with eye movements.

  • Muscle weakness.

The specific symptoms you have depends greatly on what type of frontal lobe dementia you are diagnosed with. To find out more, talk to a counselor or doctor knowledgeable about dementia and its specific symptoms.

Lewy body dementia

Lewy body dementia is a condition in which alpha-synuclein deposits called Lewy bodies accumulate in the brain. These affect the brain chemicals and cause problems with thinking, behavior, mood, and movement. You might see the following Lewy body dementia symptoms:

  • Changes in thought patterns and reasoning

  • Changing levels of alertness and confusion from one moment to the next

  • Hunched posture, balance difficulty, rigid muscles, or other Parkinsonian symptoms

  • Visual hallucinations

  • Acting out dreams

  • Autonomic nervous system malfunctions

  • Significant memory loss that is still milder than with Alzheimer's

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia is caused by conditions that diminish or block the flow of blood to the brain. Doctors tend to watch for vascular dementia symptoms following a stroke or blood clot. Symptoms could include:

  • Confusion

  • Disorientation

  • Speech problems, such as trouble finding the right word

  • Vision loss

  • Issues with planning and judgment

  • Uncontrolled laughing or crying

  • Trouble paying attention

  • New and increasing problems with social situations

Mixed dementia 

Mixed dementia is when a person has two or more types of dementia. The most common type of mixed dementia is Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.

Rapid, early, and late-stage dementia

Recognizing the signs of rapid-onset, early-onset, and late-stage dementia is crucial because these symptoms may indicate that the end of life is nearing. Each of these types of symptoms requires immediate attention from a medical provider.

Rapid onset dementia

Sudden onset dementia can happen at any age, and it is important to seek help as soon as possible. While most dementias develop over the course of years, rapid onset dementias can happen in months, weeks, or even days. The symptoms are mostly the same for slow-developing dementias such as Alzheimer's, but they come on suddenly. Motor and cerebellar dysfunction happen much more quickly in sudden-onset dementia than in other dementias.

Signs of early onset dementia

Early onset dementia or early onset Alzheimer's disease refers to the age at which you have the first symptoms. Those who develop early-onset dementia will be diagnosed when they are younger than 65. It happens most often to people 45 and older, but an even earlier diagnosis of dementia is possible in your 30s. When the onset of progressive dementias happens during your working years, you might have an entirely different group of problems than someone who gets the symptoms after they are retired. For example, you’ll probably still have to find a way to support yourself and your family members even with your diagnosis. 

Knowing what you’re facing is important. That starts with recognizing the symptoms of early-onset dementia. In addition to general early dementia signs, some of the earliest symptoms can also include:

  • Problems remembering things just learned

  • Memory loss that disrupts work or home life

  • Problems with planning and problem-solving

  • Issues completing work or home tasks

  • Confusion with times and locations

  • Certain vision problems, which can include trouble judging distance, color, and contrast, as well as trouble with reading and driving

  • Having difficulty retracing steps when something is lost

  • Showing poor judgment at work or during personal time

  • Avoiding work projects and social activities

  • Mood problems that might include depression, anxiety, confusion, or paranoia

  • Changes in personality

These early signs may sound like other warning signs of dementia that happen later in life. The difference is in how these changes in cognitive abilities affect your life as a working-age adult. Having an awareness of these symptoms is vital because you often need to act quickly when affected by early-onset dementia. For instance, you must think about how you’ll plan for your future and your family's future.

Signs of late-stage dementia

You may already know you or a loved one has dementia. Even if it’s something you’ve been aware of for a while, you might not have been told what you can expect when you're in the final stages of dementia. Dementia experts have identified these 10 signs that someone is nearing the end of their life:

  1. You can only say a few words or phrases, and they might not make sense.

  2. You need help with all your everyday activities.

  3. You eat less, have trouble swallowing, and eventually lose your ability to swallow altogether.

  4. You lose all control of your bladder and bowels, becoming completely incontinent.

  5. You cannot walk or stand at all and have trouble sitting up, eventually unable to do anything but lie in bed.

  6. Your condition deteriorates rapidly.

  7. You lose consciousness.

  8. You become more agitated and restless than before.

  9. Your breathing becomes irregular.

  10.  Your hands and feet are extremely cold

Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with dementia?

Risk factors and living with dementia symptoms

There are some things that can put people more at risk for developing dementia, including other medical conditions like Down syndrome, thyroid problems, and even low blood sugar.

Even before you get a diagnosis of dementia, the symptoms you’re experiencing can be extremely worrisome. This is true if you’re watching a loved one struggle as well. Once you start noticing symptoms, it is time to pay attention to what is happening to you or your loved one. Gathering information about dementia may help you feel more prepared for what’s to come. You can also speak with a doctor or mental health professional to get your questions answered. Leaning on a support system, developing healthy habits, and managing stress levels is also important. 

Online counseling with BetterHelp when you or a loved one develop dementia

Counseling may be beneficial as you cope with symptoms of dementia, learn of a diagnosis, or help a loved one through different treatment options. If you’re a caregiver of someone living with dementia, online therapy might be especially helpful. You can connect with licensed counselors through BetterHelp, an online platform that lets you get care according to your schedule and availability. Though you may not be able to leave the house much as a caregiver, you can still get support from the comfort of your home. Likewise, those with dementia may benefit from online counseling after an unexpected diagnosis or while they adjust to living in a new normal.

The efficacy of online counseling

Whether you are living with dementia yourself or helping a loved one with it, online counseling can help. One study assessed the efficacy of a virtual cognitive therapy program for older adults with vascular dementia or Alzheimer's as well as their caregivers. Researchers found that participants experienced improvements in general cognitive skills and functioning, including their short-term/working memory. They also reported a better quality of life. Caregivers saw improvements in their “mood, stress, anxiety, and quality of sleep.” These results support the effectiveness of online counseling for people with dementia and those taking care of them. 

Takeaway

Some forgetfulness with age is to be expected, but dementia is not a normal part of getting older. There are many types of dementia, each with its own warning signs and symptoms. Understanding what dementia can look like in different stages may help you catch it earlier so that you can begin early treatment before the disease progresses. Living with the symptoms and diagnosis of any medical condition can be difficult, which is why it’s important to seek support when you need it. A licensed online counselor can help you find more effective ways to manage your symptoms, take care of your own health, and live a healthy lifestyle.

Navigate the challenges of dementia

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