We all forget sometimes. It’s a natural part of being human and, on its own, isn’t necessarily something to worry about. But there comes a point when forgetfulness becomes a legitimate concern. What is the difference between normal and not normal aging?
Dementia is a general term used to describe a number of diseases affecting cognitive function – including the ability to think, remember, and reason. Alzheimer’s makes up over 60% of all dementia cases, but many other types exist. All are progressive and characterized by physical changes to the brain that are significant enough to interfere with daily life.
In most cases, the decline is slow, and a lot of the early symptoms are subtle, making them easy to miss.
Here are 10 early symptoms to watch for:
- Short-Term Memory Loss
Forgetfulness is one of the most classic, recognizable signs of dementia. Memories from the past – even decades ago – may be easily recalled while appointments, bills, and even what was eaten for breakfast that morning might slip through the cracks.
Imagine suddenly being unable to recognize someone you’ve known for years, forgetting how to use a can opener, or not knowing where you are or how you got there. Dementia can cause disorientation of time, place, and circumstance, leading to confusion and frustration as surroundings become less familiar.
- Loss of Vocabulary
Difficulty expressing comes from an inability to find the proper words or to even follow a conversation or storyline. As a result, they may repeat themselves, stop in the middle of a story, or even call things by the wrong name.
- Changes in Disposition
Dementia can cause rapid mood swings, anxiety, fear, and even depression. These mood shifts are often accompanied by changes in disposition and personality. A shy person may become outgoing or a generally cheery person more aggressive.
An emotional flatness often accompanies dementia. Withdrawal from hobbies and social activities is common as they suddenly find themselves struggling to remember how to engage in those hobbies or how to function properly in social situations.
- Loss of Function
It may start with difficulty completing complex tasks such as balancing the checkbook, learning new things, or competing in games with a lot of rules. New routines may be harder to follow. As concentrating becomes more challenging, so too do mental and physical tasks.
- Repetitive Behavior
Because they often don’t recall what has been said or done, an increase in repetitive and compulsive behaviors is also common. The form of expression may vary but might include repeating themselves in a story, performing the same activity over and over again, hoarding, etc.
- Impaired Judgment
Faulty reasoning can lead to impaired judgment – improper money management, decreased self-care, and even a disregard for social norms. Actions may include breaking the law, making inappropriate comments, and offending or frightening those around them.
- Decreased Comprehension
The decreased ability to find and understand words is just one cause of decreased comprehension. Difficulties with determining color or contrast are also common, as is failing to pick up on sarcasm or spot liars. This decrease in comprehension may lead to difficulty adapting to changes.
- Balance Issues
Everyone falls occasionally, but an uptick in frequency should never be considered normal. Decreasing motor control may affect gait, which can then lead to more stumbling and falling.
These symptoms may appear to cover a broad range, but they’re all interconnected. The type of brain changes that occur vary based on the type of dementia, but they’re all progressive and debilitating.
When to see a doctor:
Forgetfulness doesn’t automatically mean dementia and can be caused by a number of things – from normal aging to fatigue or stress to medication reactions.
In fact, to receive a diagnosis, an individual must be impaired in two areas other than memory.
However, these types of changes should never be ignored. If you or someone you know is displaying abnormal symptoms, it’s time to talk with a doctor. Being proactive is always better. A doctor may order:
A doctor may order:
- Memory and mental tests
- Neurological exam
- Brain imaging
Dementia is most common in people over the age of 65, but early-onset can begin when people are in their 30s, 40s, or 50s. While there is no cure, with treatment and early diagnosis, you can slow the progression of the disease. Treatments may include medication, cognitive training, and therapy.
There are few clear-cut causes for dementia, but there are several modifiable risk factors that can be attributed to approximately 50% of Alzheimer’s disease cases:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Midlife obesity
- Little or no mental activity
- Little or no physical exercise
A combination of good nutrition, physical activity, and mental and social engagement may promote brain health and decrease the likelihood of cognitive decline.
While the reality of dementia for yourself or a loved one can feel overwhelming, there are resources available to provide information, assistance, or simply someone to listen.