What Are the Early Signs of Dementia?

By Korin Miller |

Learn to spot the difference between normal memory loss and something more serious.

early signs of dementia

Many older adults are concerned about dementia, and for good reason. The condition affects about 9 percent of adults 65 and up, and your risk increases as you age.

Dementia is actually a term used to describe a group of symptoms that impact your memory, thinking, and social abilities enough to interfere with your daily functioning, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, experts stress that memory loss can be caused by many things—and having memory loss alone doesn’t mean you have dementia.

What’s Normal

Some memory loss is normal as you get older, says Daniel Franc, M.D., a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. It generally starts to happen sometime during your 40s.

“Raw memory power declines a little bit—that’s normal,” he says. That may include issues with remembering people’s names and details about things that happened in the past.

What’s Not Normal

The early warning signs of dementia are a little different, says neurologist Amit Sachdev, M.D., an assistant professor and director of neuromuscular medicine at Michigan State University. They generally include these three symptoms:

  • Feeling lost in familiar places
  • Changes in mood and demeanor
  • Being forgetful to the extent that it impacts your daily life

That last point goes beyond forgetting where you left your keys, Dr. Sachdev says. It can be regularly forgetting to pay bills or having difficulty remembering how to do things you do on a usual basis.

“It’s often things that wouldn’t normally slip your mind,” Dr. Franc adds.

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What You Should (and Shouldn’t) Do

These symptoms don’t automatically mean you have dementia, Dr. Franc says. Some memory loss may be a sign of a reversible or treatable issue, such as:

  • Nutritional deficiency
  • Hormonal abnormality
  • Pseudodementia, a syndrome that has dementia-like symptoms but is actually caused by depression

You shouldn’t panic and assume it’s dementia if you or a loved one has these symptoms. What you should do is talk to your doctor, who will do an evaluation to figure out what’s going on or refer you to someone who can.

What else you can do: Healthy habits, including exercise, may cut your risk of dementia. If you’ve been diagnosed with dementia or are a caregiver to someone with dementia, staying active can boost your physical and mental health, and give you opportunities to find social support.

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