Dementia Symptoms And Warning Signs
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.
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
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.
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
Acting out dreams
Autonomic nervous system malfunctions
Significant memory loss that is still milder than with Alzheimer's
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:
Speech problems, such as trouble finding the right word
Issues with planning and judgment
Uncontrolled laughing or crying
Trouble paying attention
New and increasing problems with social situations
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:
You can only say a few words or phrases, and they might not make sense.
You need help with all your everyday activities.
You eat less, have trouble swallowing, and eventually lose your ability to swallow altogether.
You lose all control of your bladder and bowels, becoming completely incontinent.
You cannot walk or stand at all and have trouble sitting up, eventually unable to do anything but lie in bed.
Your condition deteriorates rapidly.
You lose consciousness.
You become more agitated and restless than before.
Your breathing becomes irregular.
Your hands and feet are extremely cold
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.
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.
How do people cope with dementia?
One of the first steps a person usually must go through when coping with dementia is to accept that changes have occurred and that more will occur. Acceptance is important because some people may try to conceal their dementia in the early stages, which can be a significant source of stress and may substantially lower a person’s quality of life well before the worst dementia symptoms take hold.
In contrast, if a person can accept their developing dementia and understand what process they are likely to go through, they can adopt a proactive coping strategy, which will likely offer the highest quality of life as their dementia progresses. Appropriate strategies usually consider the unique needs and risk factors of every individual. Developing a coping strategy doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does require accepting the diagnosis of dementia and being willing to make proactive changes.
Below are three steps for developing a simple, effective coping strategy:
- Identify challenging tasks. The person with dementia should consider what activities have become challenging and which are likely to become more difficult as time passes. For example, remembering when to take medications. Ensuring that medical routines are followed strictly can help reduce health complications caused by dementia symptoms.
- Prioritize necessary tasks. A person becomes less capable of completing basic tasks as dementia progresses. Prioritizing which tasks are the most important can reduce the brain’s workload considerably, making it easier to stay on track.
- Decide the best strategy. High-priority tasks that must be completed should be given a supportive strategy. For example, if a person struggles to cook meals, they may benefit from a strategy that reduces the complexity of meals.
Many strategies for coping with dementia rely on accepting help from others. For many, accepting help can be difficult, but it is likely an essential part of ensuring the quality of life remains as high as possible for as long as possible. Friends and family are likely eager to help and should be considered good resources to reach for support.
What can worsen dementia symptoms?
All dementias are progressive and will eventually worsen as time goes on, but rapid changes in a person’s personality or behavior can also indicate another condition. For example, normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH) is a relatively rare brain disorder caused by the abnormal buildup of cerebrospinal fluid, which increases the pressure on the brain. NPH damages nerve cells and can cause similar symptoms to dementia, and when it occurs in someone who already has a dementia diagnosis, it may produce similar symptoms to mixed dementia.
Unlike dementia, NPH can potentially be reversed. A medical professional can examine a patient’s medical history, laboratory tests, and medical imaging results to determine if NPH is producing symptoms. If NPH is confirmed, doctors usually insert a shunt to relieve pressure in the brain. While NPH can cause extreme shifts in cognition, the worsening of dementia is typically slower. However, evidence suggests that several common situations can potentially exacerbate dementia symptoms:
- Health behaviors. As dementia progresses, a person often begins to lose track of health behaviors that they used to engage in regularly. They may struggle to remember when to take medications, eat a healthy diet, stay hydrated, or seek medical care.
- Perception and acceptance. Everyone reacts to a dementia diagnosis differently, but many people struggle to accept their diagnosis and take proactive steps to ensure their quality of life. They may try to hide their symptoms and manage their emotions, which may appear as a worsening of their symptoms.
- Changes in routine. Those with dementia usually benefit from adhering to a routine. Changes in routine, such as when daylight savings time begins or ends, can temporarily increase confusion, agitation, or hyperactivity.
- Delirium. Delirium is a clinical syndrome that is usually found in the elderly, regardless of whether they have been diagnosed with dementia. It is characterized by an alteration of attention, consciousness, and cognition. By definition, the symptoms of delirium are caused by an underlying medical condition separate from their dementia. If a person’s dementia symptoms seem to worsen suddenly, it is possible another medical cause is to blame.
Are people with dementia aware of their symptoms?
Evidence suggests that people with dementia have varying degrees of awareness regarding their symptoms. Awareness usually declines as the dementia progresses. For example, those with mild cognitive impairment, a condition in which dementia-like symptoms are present but the severity does not yet meet the criteria to diagnose dementia, are usually aware of their symptoms and can recognize their progression.
In contrast, those with symptoms similar to advanced Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia-related brain disorder may have limited awareness of their condition. If they received an early diagnosis, they may have had significant awareness at the onset of their dementia symptoms, but the progressive decline may eventually reduce their ability to understand what is happening.
Evidence suggests that once individuals show signs of the advanced cognitive decline common in late-stage dementia, they may lose their sense of self and struggle to relate to the world around them. They may experience anxiety and agitation due to their lack of understanding and may require substantial medical and psychological treatment to be comfortable.
How do you make a person with dementia feel loved and cared for?
Caring for a person with dementia can be challenging at times, but the support of loving caregivers can substantially increase their quality of life. One of the most important ways you can support a loved one with dementia is to accept and understand their diagnosis. Many of those with dementia struggle to accept their diagnosis and may try to conceal their symptoms, especially if they are diagnosed while relatively young, like in early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Support from loved ones likely increases their willingness to engage in coping strategies and adhere to supportive strategies designed to bolster their quality of life.
A person likely to develop dementia may already have an idea of what to expect, but if caregivers have a firm understanding of their loved one’s condition, it may be easier to help them anticipate changes to come. A dementia diagnosis is likely to take a substantial toll on the person diagnosed and the loved ones supporting them. It is likely important that caregivers prioritize their own self-care to ensure that they can provide a loving, accepting environment.
Why is it important to include individuals with dementia in all aspects of their care?
Although evidence suggests that dementia often progresses to a point where an individual loses their sense of self, it further indicates that a feeling of being oneself and autonomy can fluctuate over time. Dementia can progress to the point where a person can no longer make decisions for themselves, but they may still be aware of some - or all - of their circumstances. They should be treated with the same dignity and respect they were entitled to before their diagnosis.
Evidence indicates that those with dementia do better when actively involved in their treatment. A person’s quality of life can be substantially improved by introducing coping strategies, structured routines, and other adjunctive measures to help them continue to function as their brain cells degrade. Because the person’s participation is so important, it is vital to keep them included in developments in their treatment and care.
What should you not do with dementia?
A person with dementia can potentially retain independence and autonomy for years after their initial diagnosis. However, dementia will inevitably progress, and over time, it will become more difficult for a person to complete basic activities of daily living. One of the most dangerous things to do following a dementia diagnosis is to reject it.
Many people attempt to conceal symptoms of their dementia or remain in denial about their diagnosis. Rejecting a dementia diagnosis is dangerous because it deprives the person who has been diagnosed from establishing early coping strategies and adjunctive techniques that help maintain a good quality of life. Establishing living routines, using memory aids, and accepting help from others all require accepting the diagnosis, and rejecting those supportive measures may have serious consequences.
When should a person with dementia stop living alone?
There is no set criteria for when a person should stop living alone. The decision is usually based on a person’s ability to engage in activities of daily living like bathing, cooking, and adhering to medical regimes. A person with dementia is likely to increase the length of time they live alone by recognizing what impacts their diagnosis is likely to have and adopting coping strategies to help them navigate the decline.
Independent living is likely to be extended by adopting adjunctive techniques for maintaining self-care, such as adopting a daily self-care routine that does not change. Installing fall-prevention equipment and finding alternative modes of transportation may also be helpful. Loved ones of a person with dementia may want to consider that they are no longer able to live alone if they wander or experience excessive isolation and loneliness.
What do people with dementia struggle with the most?
The exact presentation and impact varies from person to person based on their unique circumstances and dementia risk. In the early stages, a person will likely be able to take care of themselves and stick to an appropriate routine; as time goes on, they will likely struggle to complete activities of daily living and may require significantly more support to take care of themselves.
Although everyone diagnosed with dementia will experience a progressive decline that interferes with their ability to function, one of the most common things that people struggle with is accepting their diagnosis. Many people attempt to conceal the symptoms of their dementia in the early stages and may deprive themselves of important supportive strategies and support from loved ones. Hiding the diagnosis or rejecting it outright can potentially lower their quality of life considerably. As a person’s dementia worsens, it is usually helpful if they have already established living routines and have a comprehensive support network on which to rely.
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