Forgetfulness knows no age. We all lose things from time to time or say the wrong word by mistake. But when you or someone you care about seems to be forgetting things more often or showing other signs that have you concerned, it’s only natural to wonder: Is it just part of the aging process? Or is it the start of dementia?
Here you’ll learn about the most common symptoms of dementia. We’ll also talk about who is most at risk, the different types of dementia and how it’s diagnosed. Lastly, we’ll explain what to do if you or your loved one is showing signs of dementia.
What is dementia?
Dementia is the term used to describe cognitive decline that can reduce someone’s ability to do daily tasks and activities. It’s not one disease, but rather the term covers a range of conditions. So, people aren’t diagnosed with “dementia” without noting a specific type such as Alzheimer’s.
Dementia affects things like memory, language, problem solving and social abilities. Though it depends on the type of dementia, the condition is most likely to show up in a person’s later years. In the U.S., the average age of onset is estimated at 83.7 years, but some types of dementia can affect younger people as well. Early onset Alzheimer’s disease, for example, can start when people are in their 30s, with the likelihood of onset continuing to increase as we age.
Worldwide, someone develops some form of dementia every three seconds, and the number of people living with dementia is expected to double (to around 100 million) in about 20 years.
Signs and symptoms of dementia
The type of dementia a person has can also determine how they’ll be affected, particularly in the early stages.
Many people think of memory loss as the first tell-tale sign. But while memory loss is a common first sign of dementia, it’s not always among the earliest symptoms – and memory loss by itself doesn’t necessarily mean dementia is setting in. Mild memory loss is normal as we age, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore any symptoms, as they can progress differently.
It’s also common for dementia to progress in different stages for different people. For one person, memory loss may be the first sign that something is amiss. For others, the earliest signs of dementia may be a change in speech patterns, mood or personality.
But while dementia affects everyone differently, there are some symptoms that are commonly associated with diseases that cause dementia. If you or a loved one is showing any of the following signs, it may be time to see a medical professional:
Cognitive symptoms of dementia
Dementia can inhibit the brain’s ability to perform certain everyday tasks such as:
- Frequently forgetting or mixing up common words
- New problems writing or carrying on a conversation
- Getting lost while in a familiar area
- Misplacing things and having difficulty retracing steps to find them
- Confusion with time or place
- Challenges in problem-solving, planning or decision making
Psychological symptoms of dementia
Dementia can also have an impact on mental and behavioral health, at times causing:
- Mood or personality changes
- Anxiety and agitation
- Paranoia and hallucinations
What causes dementia?
Dementia happens when nerve cells become damaged and their connections in the brain become lost.
But what causes that damage or nerve loss?
There’s no single thing, and it may be different for everyone. For certain types of dementia, like Alzheimer’s, genetics can play a role. Other times, it may be a health condition – such as stroke or a head injury – that prompts the onset of dementia.
What are the different types of dementia?
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It’s a progressive disease that affects memory and other critical cognitive functions. Memory loss, confusion and taking longer than normal to complete routine tasks are often the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
There’s currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, however, certain medicines ((like cholinesterase inhibitors) have been shown to temporarily improve symptoms.
Vascular dementia is more prevalent among people who are at higher risk of stroke because of obesity or diabetes. Strokes aren’t the only cause of vascular dementia, though. Onset can also occur due to other conditions such as stroke that damage blood vessels and reduce their ability to bring oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
Lewy body dementia
Lewy bodies form when the protein alpha-synuclein associates with certain other types of proteins. When this happens, these abnormal deposits can affect certain chemicals in the brain, often leading to problems with reasoning, mobility and behavior.
Frontotemporal dementia (FTD)
FTD is the most commonly diagnosed form of dementia for people younger than 60. In fact, it’s estimated that the majority of those with FTD are between 45 and 65 years old.
Speech and behavioral problems are common symptoms, particularly during the early stages of FTD. While researchers have not been able to conclude that FTD is inherited, it does run in families. Up to 40% of those diagnosed have a family history of the disease.
Huntington's disease is a rare condition that causes nerve cells in the brain to break down over time. It’s caused by a single defective gene on chromosome 4, which can be inherited or passed genetically. Chromosome 4 is one of the 23 human chromosomes that carry a person’s entire genetic code. Onset of Huntington’s disease usually happens to people in their 30s or 40s, and can lead to problems with movement, thinking and mental well-being.
Other types of dementia
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease
- Mixed dementia
- Parkinson’s disease dementia
- Korsakoff syndrome
- Posterior Cortical Atrophy
- Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus
Who has the highest risk of developing dementia?
Age is the biggest risk factor for both men and women. And the older we get, the more likely we are to develop symptoms – one in 14 people over the age of 65 has dementia.
Also, at increased risk are those with Down syndrome or a family history of dementia. Other risk factors include heavy use of alcohol, diabetes, smoking, sleep apnea, vitamin and nutritional deficiencies, and lack of exercise.
How is dementia diagnosed?
To arrive at an accurate diagnosis, doctors will want to learn about the patient’s health history. Cognitive question-and-answer style tests can also help doctors get a better understanding of the patient’s thinking, reasoning, orientation and attention skills. Neurological testing can help with evaluating language, memory, movement and balance skills.
Blood tests and advanced brain-imaging tests may also be ordered to help identify whether the symptoms are being caused by other health conditions.
Diagnosing conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders can be challenging. Doctors must look for subtle signs and patterns that follow the typical loss of skills and function associated with the disease.
When doctors diagnose dementia, they first want to find out whether an underlying condition like an abnormal thyroid function or a vitamin deficiency may be to blame for the symptoms. Some symptoms can be treated if they’re diagnosed early enough.
What should I do if I or a loved one is experiencing dementia symptoms?
You may be tempted to wait a while to see if things improve on their own, but there may be advantages to seeing a doctor as soon as possible, including:
- Access to treatment options that can help lessen symptoms
- Getting diagnosed with certain types of dementia (like Alzheimer’s) earlier makes it more likely that treatment will work better
- More opportunities to participate in clinical trials. (We have exclusive trials at the Center for Memory and Aging. Your doctor can work with you to see if one fits.)
- Additional time to plan for the future
So, if you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms, get checked right away. Start by making an appointment with your primary care doctor. Or if you already have a neurologist, get in touch and schedule a visit.