Early Signs of Dementia (And When to See a Doctor)

Every 66 seconds, someone in the United States develops Alzheimer's - the most common type of dementia. Though the possibility of a dementia diagnosis is a scary, it's important that family caregivers watch for early warning signs, and seek medical care quickly. Read on to learn how to tell if your loved one is showing signs of dementia, and when to see a doctor.

Types of Dementia

There are two common types of dementia - defined below.

Secondary Dementia:
Sometimes, dementia is a secondary condition caused by another health issue - such as depression or hypothyroidism. Symptoms of dementia can also be triggered by something as simple as the wrong dose or combination of medication. If this is the case, a simple adjustment or drug change may be all it takes to treat your loved one, so early intervention is very important.

Primary Dementia:
Primary dementia occurs when the condition is organic and is not secondary to any other condition or illness. Alzheimer's, a progressive brain disease, is the most common type of primary dementia. Even in the case of primary dementia, early diagnosis is critical, as receiving proper treatment can slow the progress of the disease.

Now that you understand the difference between primary and secondary dementia, here's a list of early warning signs to watch for.

Early Symptoms of Dementia

Don't ignore these eight signs - however common they may seem at the time.

  1. Significant memory loss
    This symptom most often affects short-term learning - meaning childhood memories are clear, but your loved one can't remember what they had for breakfast. Some memory loss is a normal part of aging, but you should check with a doctor if your parent is forgetting recent events or is relying on memory aids for things they had previously been able to do without prompts.
  2. Struggling with problem-solving
    In addition to forgetting recent learnings, another sign of dementia is having difficulty solving problems. This could be anything from being slow to do simple math or struggling with planning.
  3. Confusion
    This one is tough on caregivers because it's hard to see your loved one struggle with confusion. If you notice your aging parent forgetting what day of the week it is, how they got somewhere, or where they are with any regularity - it's time to talk to a doctor.
  4. Forgetting or mixing up words
    Occasionally "losing" a word is normal. But, if you find your aging parent frequently forgetting what things are called, or calling things by the wrong name, that's a possible early indication of dementia.
  5. Losing interest
    If you notice your loved one has lost interest in things they used to enjoy, or that they seem less interested in social activities, that can be a warning sign. This can also be a symptom of depression - and depression itself can cause mild dementia.
  6. Personality changes
    Subtle changes are usually nothing to worry about, as people do change through the years. However, if you notice your loved one is unusually depressed, anxious, or aggressive - seek medical advice.
  7. Getting lost
    Does your loved one frequently lose their sense of direction? Are they unable to easily retrace their steps? Do they forget how to get to familiar places or find it difficult to follow directions? If so, this could be a warning sign of an underlying issue.
  8. Repeating tasks
    If you notice your loved one breaking their usual routine and repeating things they have already done - like shaving or brushing their teeth - consider it a possible symptom.

When to Seek Medical Attention

There's no simple answer but, in general, if you sense something is off - it's always better to err on the side of caution. Even if your concerns turn out to be regular signs of aging, it's better to know. If you do get a diagnosis of dementia, early intervention is critical to the best possible outcome.

Dealing with your loved one's health issues is one of the most difficult aspects of being a family caregiver. But, by knowing what to watch for and responding to it quickly, rest assured that you're doing everything you can.