What Are the Early Signs of Dementia?

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Confusion, memory loss, and personality changes are just a few of the early signs that a person has dementia, an umbrella term describing the symptoms of several different brain disorders that can interfere with one’s ability to live independently.

Depending on the cause, sometimes dementia symptoms are treatable, but, in other cases, they are permanent or progressive. This is why early detection of cognitive decline is important. The right medical treatment might reverse or relieve symptoms.

What to Know About Dementia

Here's what you should know about about dementia signs, symptoms, causes, and coping:

  • Dementia is a catchall term to describe the symptoms of the group of brain disorders associated with cognitive decline.
  • Types of dementia include Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and frontotemporal dementia.
  • Early signs of dementia include trouble remembering newly-learned information, misplacing items, trouble reasoning, and poor judgment.
  • Conditions linked to dementia include traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Huntington's disease. 
  • Development of dementia symptoms increases with age, but people of all ages can experience them, depending on the cause. 
  • Some conditions associated with dementia-like symptoms are treatable or reversible, such as brain tumors, nutritional deficiencies, thyroid problems, and immune disorders.
  • Diet and exercise, managing cardiovascular health, and refraining from drinking and smoking, are some steps people can take to maintain their cognitive health.

Dementia Signs and Symptoms

A long list of symptoms is associated with dementia, but many overlap with other health conditions, meaning that having some of them does not confirm that an individual is cognitively impaired.

That said, don’t hesitate to consult a healthcare provider if you or a loved one is showing signs of dementia, which can be cognitive or psychological in nature:

  • Trouble remembering new information
  • Confusion, particularly related to time or place
  • Disorientation
  • Changes in mood or personality 
  • Getting easily irritated
  • Growing depressed and withdrawn
  • Trouble problem-solving
  • Trouble completing tasks
  • Trouble organizing
  • Increased anxiety
  • Trouble communicating (in verbal or written form)
  • Trouble with physical coordination 
  • Getting lost, especially on one’s way to familiar places
  • Routinely misplacing commonly-used items
  • Exhibiting signs of paranoia
  • Exercising poor judgment

Not everyone will notice these symptoms right away, and a checklist alone can’t determine if a person has a dementia-related disorder. In fact, not even a test can do so.

Diagnosis

To make a diagnosis, a physician such as a neurologist, geriatrician, or mental health professional will complete a comprehensive evaluation that includes a physical exam, a review of one’s medical history, blood tests, and assessments related to behavior and overall functionality.

Identifying dementia early might not only alleviate symptoms but also give patients the opportunity to participate in clinical drug trials and plan for life in the future.

Common Causes of Dementia

Medical intervention for dementia or dementia-like symptoms depends on the source of the problem. Although it’s widely believed that such conditions solely affect the elderly, that’s inaccurate.

People of any age can experience these symptoms because the causes are related to a variety of health conditions—from traumatic brain injury to Alzheimer’s disease.  

Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is arguably the most widely-known form of dementia and it is also the most common cause, representing 60% to 80% of dementia-related diagnoses, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Although increased age heightens one's risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, 200,000 people living with the disease are younger than age 65. These individuals have what’s known as early-onset Alzheimer’s or younger-onset Alzheimer’s. One of the first signs people with Alzheimer’s disease (early-onset or otherwise) report having is trouble recalling information they’ve recently learned. This occurs because Alzheimer’s compromises part of the brain involved in learning processes.

Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s is a progressive condition, meaning that symptoms will worsen over time, but medical treatment can help manage them.  

Other Types of Dementia

Other progressive forms of dementia include frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia—and it's also possible to have a combination of dementia types.

Frontotemporal Dementia

With frontotemporal dementia, nerve cells in the parts of the brain involved in behavior, communication, and personality begin to degenerate. Thus, people with this condition typically have symptoms that impact how they behave, reason, or communicate. Movement is also affected. 

Lewy Body Dementia

In Lewy body dementia, wads of protein accumulate in the brain. These proteins can also be found in patients with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. People with this form of dementia might hallucinate, have trouble concentrating, or experience difficulty with physical coordination and movement.

Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia is second only to Alzheimer’s in its prevalence in people with dementia. It occurs as a result of problems with the blood vessels that involve the brain. While people with this form of dementia may have difficulty with recall, their most obvious symptoms are likely to be trouble with organization, reasoning, concentration, and thinking quickly.  

Conditions Linked to Dementia

Several other medical conditions have been implicated in dementia diagnoses. They include (the previously mentioned) traumatic brain injury and Parkinson’s disease as well as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and Huntington's disease. People with these disorders have dementia-like symptoms or go on to develop a form of dementia. 

Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury, which develops after repeat head trauma, is common in athletes who have played aggressive contact sports such as football, rugby, or boxing, but these injuries can also occur in sports such as volleyball, cheerleading, or water polo. If certain parts of the brain are injured, dementia may subsequently develop.

Symptoms of traumatic brain injury include memory loss, difficulty communicating, depression, and rage.

Parkinson's Disease

It is also possible for symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease, which is caused by nerve cell damage in the brain, to form. People with Parkinson’s often suffer from tremors, move slowly, and have trouble with balance and coordination. It is common for people with Parkinson’s to go on to experience dementia symptoms.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a heritable disease characterized by the accumulation of proteins known as prions. It is a fatal condition that occurs very rarely. In addition to genetic predisposition, this illness can develop after exposure to infected nervous system tissue during a transplant.

In cattle, it is widely known as mad cow disease, which humans can contract from eating contaminated meat. Signs include confusion, disorientation, depression, coordination problems, and difficulty speaking and concentrating. 

Huntington's Disease

Huntington's disease is an inherited disorder in which nerve cells in the brain deteriorate. Symptoms include forgetfulness, depression, difficulty communicating and difficulty with physical movement. This condition typically appears in one’s 30s or 40s.

While traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s, Creutzfeldt-Jakob, and Huntington’s diseases are not reversible, a number of other conditions associated with dementia are. Having a brain tumor, nutritional deficiency, thyroid problem, or immune disorder are just a few examples of conditions that can cause dementia-like symptoms to develop that can be medically treated and reversed.

Preventing Cognitive Decline

Many causes of dementia are genetic and the likelihood of exhibiting signs increases with age, but experts still recommend that people do what they can to reduce the odds of experiencing symptoms.

Abstaining from excessive drinking and smoking (in any quantity), managing conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, and eating well and exercising are among many steps the public can take to stay on top of their cognitive health. 

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