✓ Evidence Based

9 Early Warning Signs Of Dementia

A staggering 50 million people worldwide are currently suffering from dementia. This number is expected to triple by the year 2050 (1).

Dementia comprises a group of neurodegenerative disorders that gradually impair memory, cognitive abilities, and emotional connections.

Alzheimer’s disease is a common form of dementia, representing approximately 60-70% of all cases.

But what exactly happens when dementia affects the brain?

Dementia involves a disruption of neural networks, where abnormal protein structures interfere with brain cell communication, leading to cognitive impairments.

These rogue proteins form sticky plaques and twisted tangles that entangle the communication highways between brain cells, leaving a trail of cognitive dysfunction in their wake.

Early Warning Signs Of Dementia

In this article, we will explore the common early warning signs associated with dementia and discuss the importance of seeking professional evaluation for accurate diagnosis.

1. Short-term memory changes

People in the early stages of dementia experience noticeable difficulties in retaining and recalling new information. This then manifests as short-term memory impairment.

Studies have shown that individuals with early-stage dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, often exhibit deficits in short-term memory functions (2).

In the early stages of dementia, individuals may experience difficulties in remembering recent events, conversations, or appointments.

They may frequently misplace objects and struggle to follow instructions or remember what they were doing moments ago.

These memory changes can be subtle at first, often dismissed as a normal part of aging or stress.

However, consistent and noticeable short-term memory lapses, especially in people over 65, should not be ignored.

Seeking medical evaluation promptly can aid in early detection and intervention.

Various types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease (3), vascular dementia (4), and frontotemporal dementia (5), can manifest with short-term memory impairment.

Summary: Short-term memory impairment, such as remembering recent events or misplacing items, is a common early symptom of dementia.

2. Trouble finding the right words to say

People at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease often experience word-finding challenges or struggle to recall familiar phrases.

Recent studies have demonstrated that speech and language impairments may serve as early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease (6).

Moreover, advancements in natural language processing have enabled detailed analyses of spontaneous speech, further supporting the connection between language changes and cognitive decline in dementia (7).

Health professionals can employ cognitive assessments and linguistic evaluations to detect subtle changes in verbal expression, aiding in diagnosing dementia at its initial stages.

Summary: Difficulties with language such as finding the right words to say can be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.

3. Navigation problems

As we age, our cognitive abilities undergo natural changes, and it’s not uncommon to occasionally misplace keys or forget an appointment.

However, when navigation problems become persistent and increasingly noticeable, they can serve as an early warning sign of dementia.

Difficulty with navigation arises from the brain’s complex network responsible for spatial awareness and orientation becoming compromised (8).

Individuals with early-stage dementia may find it challenging to follow familiar routes, get lost in familiar surroundings, or struggle with maps and directions (9).

Simple tasks like returning home after a walk or driving to a nearby store may become confusing and daunting.

Summary: Challenges with navigation and spatial awareness, like getting lost in familiar places, are early signs of cognitive decline in dementia.

4. Changes in mood

There is evidence that late-life depression can be seen as a precursor to dementia (10).

Individuals may experience persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities.

Moreover, they may withdraw from social interactions and exhibit changes in sleep patterns.

These emotional shifts can often be misinterpreted as general signs of aging or stress, leading to delayed diagnosis and intervention.

Additionally, dementia can manifest in heightened levels of irritability and agitation (11).

Simple tasks and everyday challenges can trigger disproportionate frustration and anger, causing strain in personal relationships.

Anxiety is another emotion commonly linked to the early stages of dementia (10).

Individuals with early-stage dementia may exhibit increased anxiety, especially in new or unfamiliar situations.

They may also experience restlessness, palpitations, and even panic attacks, all of which can significantly impact their quality of life.

Recognizing these mood changes as potential indicators of dementia can facilitate timely medical assessment and intervention.

Engaging in regular cognitive activities, social interaction, and a healthy lifestyle can also help reduce the risk of developing dementia.

Summary: Changes in mood such as sadness, social withdrawal, agitation, anxiety and interpersonal strain can serve as potential indicators of dementia.

5. Poor organization skills

Poor organization skills can manifest in various ways.

Forgetting appointments, losing track of time, misplacing items, and struggling to follow a sequence of tasks are all potential red flags (12).

Seniors who once managed their daily routines efficiently might find it increasingly challenging to plan and execute activities, leading to frustration and agitation.

It is important to note that occasional lapses in organization skills do not necessarily signify dementia.

However, if these difficulties become frequent and start interfering with daily life, it is crucial to seek medical advice promptly.

Early diagnosis offers numerous benefits. It provides an opportunity for timely intervention and access to appropriate treatments that may slow down the progression of the disease.

Additionally, it allows families to plan for the future and make necessary adjustments to ensure the safety and well-being of their loved ones.

Summary: A decline in organization skills, such as frequently forgetting appointments and misplacing items, can be an early sign of dementia.

6. Sensory dysfunction

Several studies have demonstrated a significant association between sensory dysfunction and the onset of dementia.

A longitudinal study conducted in 2018 observed that older adults with poor sensory function, particularly impaired vision, and hearing, were more likely to develop dementia within a five-year follow-up period (13).

Furthermore, a meta-analysis revealed that people with reduced smell were at a higher risk of developing dementia (14).

The link between sensory dysfunction and dementia can be attributed to several underlying mechanisms.

Firstly, impaired sensory processing may lead to social isolation and reduced engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, both of which are established risk factors for dementia.

Secondly, neurodegenerative processes that affect the brain regions responsible for sensory processing may also contribute to cognitive decline.

Summary: Impaired sensory functions, particularly in vision and hearing, are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia.

7. Feeling apathetic

Apathy, often misconstrued as mere disinterest or laziness, has emerged as a potential early warning sign of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease (15).

Characterized by a lack of motivation, emotional indifference, and decreased engagement in once-enjoyable activities, apathy can be a subtle but critical indicator of underlying cognitive decline.

A growing body of research underscores the significance of apathy in the context of dementia.

A study found that Elderly individuals exhibiting apathetic behavior were more likely to develop dementia later in life, with an increased risk compared to those without apathy (16).

Another longitudinal study revealed that participants with dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) who exhibited apathy experienced a significantly faster cognitive decline and earlier admission to nursing homes compared to those without apathy (17).

Clinicians and caregivers should be vigilant in recognizing apathetic behaviors and prioritize comprehensive evaluations to provide appropriate care and support to affected individuals.

Summary: Apathy, characterized by a lack of motivation and emotional indifference, can be a subtle indicator of early-stage dementia.

8. Poor decision-making

In the early stages of dementia, individuals may struggle to make good judgments and choices, exhibiting difficulty in planning, problem-solving, and assessing risks.

Tasks that once seemed routine, such as managing finances or maintaining personal hygiene, become increasingly challenging.

These changes can lead to a decline in overall functioning and independence, impacting the individual’s quality of life and placing a strain on their relationships.

Family members and caregivers often observe shifts in decision-making abilities as one of the first noticeable symptoms.

Impulsive and irrational choices, accompanied by an inability to learn from past mistakes, become evident.

Loved ones may notice instances of forgetfulness, disorientation, and a reduced ability to weigh the consequences of actions.

Summary: Early dementia can manifest as poor decision-making abilities, impacting routine tasks and overall independence.

9. Frequent constipation

Constipation, often perceived as a benign digestive issue, may be more than just an inconvenience.

Emerging research suggests that constipation is more prevalent in elderly individuals with dementia and non-amnestic mild cognitive impairment (na-MCI), indicating a potential association between constipation and cognitive decline (18).

While further investigation is warranted, this potential link has caught the attention of medical experts, urging them to explore the association between gastrointestinal health and cognitive decline.

The gastrointestinal tract and the brain are intricately connected through the gut-brain axis (19).

This bidirectional communication system allows for the transmission of signals and molecules between the gut and the central nervous system.

Consequently, any disruption in gut health can impact brain function and vice versa.

Chronic constipation may lead to alterations in the gut microbiota, causing inflammation and the release of neurotoxic substances that can affect cognitive processes (20).

Constipation is a common ailment influenced by various factors, such as diet, lifestyle, and medications, which might not always be related to dementia.

Early diagnosis of dementia remains a complex process involving comprehensive medical evaluations, cognitive assessments, and neuroimaging techniques.

Summary: Constipation in the elderly may have an association with cognitive decline and dementia, warranting further medical investigation.

How to Prevent Dementia?

While there is no surefire way to guarantee the complete prevention of dementia, research suggests that adopting certain lifestyle changes and habits can promote brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Keeping the brain engaged and active is essential for cognitive vitality.

Regularly challenge your mind with mentally stimulating activities, such as puzzles, crosswords, reading, learning a new language, or taking up a musical instrument.

Engaging in social activities and discussions can also help keep the brain sharp and foster cognitive resilience.

Chronic stress can also be detrimental to brain health, contributing to cognitive decline over time (21).

Practice relaxation techniques like meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, or yoga to reduce stress levels.

Engaging in regular physical activity is beneficial not only for cardiovascular health but also for maintaining cognitive abilities.

Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, promoting the growth of new neurons and enhancing neural connections.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, such as brisk walking, swimming, or cycling, coupled with strength training exercises for overall brain health.

Following a balanced and nutritious diet can also play a crucial role in reducing the risk of dementia.

Emphasize a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.

Research suggests that the Mediterranean diet, which includes olive oil, nuts, fish, and leafy greens, may be particularly beneficial for brain health due to its anti-inflammatory properties and abundance of antioxidants (22).

Conclusion

While there is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia entirely, incorporating these evidence-based strategies into your lifestyle can significantly improve your cognitive health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline as you age.

Remember that it’s never too early or too late to start implementing these habits, as they can have a positive impact on brain health at any stage of life.

Prioritizing physical exercise, a nutritious diet, mental stimulation, quality sleep and social connections will contribute to a fulfilling and cognitively resilient life!