Early Signs and Symptoms of Dementia: What to Look For

By Gilbert Guide
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This article outlines some of the early signs and symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Keep in mind that some symptoms can also be attributed to the normal effects of aging or due to factors such as stress or depression. If your loved one experiences any of these symptoms, detecting Alzheimer’s or dementia early on is important and it’s best to consult a physician for a proper diagnosis. Because Alzheimer’s and other dementias affect the brain and its functioning, both behavioral and cognitive changes are apparent early in the course of the disease. Some of the most common behavioral and cognitive changes are listed below.

Cognitive Changes

Difficulty or issues in any of the following cognitive areas should be brought to a physician’s attention immediately. The doctor can then perform the necessary tests required for detecting Alzheimer’s disease and forms of dementia.

Memory

Memory loss is one of the most common signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. While occasionally forgetting names or appointments is normal, a person in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia will often be unable to recall recently learned information. That person’s forgetfulness also will occur with increasing frequency.

Familiar Tasks

Everyday tasks such as acts of basic hygiene (e.g., showering or brushing one’s teeth), meal preparation or placing a telephone call can seem unfamiliar to someone in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Sometimes all or most of the steps required to perform the action are recalled, but the order is jumbled.

Language

Although occasionally forgetting the correct word for an object is normal, a person in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia will forget simple words or use unusual terms. Both speech and writing can be affected and might be slightly puzzling or difficult to understand. Be aware that the onset of jumbled speech could also be a symptom of a stroke.

Orientation

Occasional bouts of forgetfulness are normal, but early symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s make people unaware of their surroundings even in familiar places, such as his or her neighborhood or inside the home.

Abstract Thinking

Complex mental tasks or ones that require several steps may become difficult (if not impossible) to perform. The difficulty usually becomes apparent in tasks that require a person to input information from various sources and then combine, assess or analyze that information. Depending on the individual and the stage of the disease, this could include an activity such as balancing a checkbook or following a group discussion.

Judgment

An inability to make a sound decision based on a given set of factors, when a person normally shows sound judgment, is one of the other possible signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. A common example is dressing inappropriately for the weather.

Putting Things in the Wrong Place

Another of the more common early warning signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s is placing objects in inappropriate or nonsensical places, such as putting keys in the refrigerator.

Behavioral Changes

Major shifts in personality, behavior and mood or energy levels can also be indicative of early-stage symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Personality

A noticeable shift in personality can be one of the early signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Sometimes personality changes are hard to pinpoint, but take note if the person isn’t acting in accordance with his or her normal patterns of behavior. In the early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia, an individual often understands that he or she has forgotten an important piece of information, and the inability to recall it causes frustration.

Behavior or Mood

Alzheimer’s and other dementias can cause severe and rapidly changing moods, resulting in an individual experiencing various emotions ranging from rage to sadness and complete calm within the course of a few minutes.

Energy

Passivity, sleeping for prolonged periods of time, and sitting for hours watching TV or otherwise not speaking with anyone are other early warning signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. A lack of energy or passion for life can manifest in a lack of desire to participate in normal activities, especially ones that the person previously enjoyed. A physician should be consulted to rule out the possibility that these symptoms are not signs of depression.

Detecting Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia

Detecting Alzheimer’s and dementia early is important for treatment and the progression of the disease course. If your loved one is experiencing any of the signs of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s outlined above, contact a physician right away. There are basic tests that doctors use when detecting Alzheimer’s, dementia, or mild cognitive impairment. These include Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE) and/or Saint Louis University Mental Status Exam (SLUMS).

MMSE

The Mini Mental Status Exam (MMSE) was developed in 1975 and is used for detecting Alzheimer’s and dementia or testing for cognitive decline. If 24 or more of the 30 tasks are successfully completed, then physicians will usually designate the individual as not being cognitively impaired.

SLUMS

An update to the MMSE exam was developed by a group of Saint Louis University geriatricians. It has the unfortunate title of SLUMS, which stands for Saint Louis University Mental Status. The newer exam, another method for detecting Alzheimer’s or dementia, was billed as a supplement to the MMSE, and it is slightly more nuanced. For example, the test adjusts scores according to the patient’s education level. SLUMS is now used by many Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals.