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10 Early Warning Signs of Dementia You Shouldn’t Ignore

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What are the early warning signs of dementia? It’s much more than a purely academic question: with more than 6 ½ million Americas suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, and an untold number dealing with other, less common forms of dementia, knowing the potential warning signs is important to every family and every caregiver.

The list of dementia warning signs featured in this article from AARP may not be especially new or ground-breaking, but we think it’s a helpful list to bear in mind as you interact with seniors close to you. Patrick Kiger, a reporter for AARP, compiled the article. We should add a caution that not every instance of a behavior cited on this list indicates the onset of cognitive decline. However, a pattern of lapses and other behavioral anomalies might suggest that a cognitive evaluation is in order.

As Kiger writes, “It’s not unusual to have occasional trouble finding the right word or remembering where you put things. But persistent difficulty with memory and the ability to perform everyday tasks might be signs of something more serious.” Let’s take a deeper look.

Dementia Warning Signs: Change in Brain Function

Kiger begins his article by making sure that we’re all on the same page about what dementia truly is. More of a symptom than a condition, “dementia is a catch-all term for changes in the brain that cause a loss of functioning that interferes with daily life,” he writes.

Dementia’s effects are both deep and wide, including diminishment of focus, attention, language skills, problem-solving, and visual perception. It can also make emotional regulation difficult, and can often lead to personality changes. 

“According to 2023 figures from the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 6.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, though many experts say that number is probably higher,” Kiger explains. “And its prevalence is projected to double by 2050. Globally, more than 55 million people have dementia, the World Health Organization estimates.”

Dementia-Like Symptoms May Point to Other Conditions

As Kiger mentioned in the introduction, a few instances of confusion, misplacing common items, or using the wrong word in a sentence isn’t a definite sign of dementia. However, when these things become a pattern, it’s vital to see a medical expert who can administer the right tests and solidify a diagnosis.

In fact, “several, often treatable, conditions — from common infections to a vitamin deficiency — can cause dementia-like symptoms, so it’s necessary to rule them out first,” Kiger warns.

But if the diagnosis truly is dementia, it’s best to know sooner rather than later so that you can plan for care and treatment as the condition progresses.

Kiger provides the following list of symptoms to look out for as an early warning.

Dementia Warning Sign #1: Difficulty with Everyday Tasks 

Mistakes are part of life, and the occasional slip-up is human. But if someone is showing signs of dementia, they will often find it increasingly difficult to stay on top of more complex tasks, like keeping up with their finances or following recipes while cooking.

“They may also find it hard to concentrate on tasks, take much longer to do them or have trouble finishing them,” Kiger explains.

Dementia Warning Sign #2: Repetition. 

We all double-check for clarity or accidentally repeat ourselves, but someone exhibiting signs of dementia will continually ask the same questions or tell the same stories, seemingly with no recollection of the previous occurrences. This is, according to the Cleveland Clinic, a common indicator of mild or moderate Alzheimer’s.

Dementia Warning Sign #3: Communication Problems 

Being able to join and keep up with the flow of a conversation is an important social skill, and one that most of us take for granted. But someone with dementia will struggle to maintain this basic conversational skill as their condition progresses.

Kiger writes, “Observe if a loved one has trouble joining in conversations or following along with them, stops abruptly in the middle of a thought, or struggles to think of words or the name of objects.” If they do, it could be a warning sign worth further investigation.

Dementia Warning Sign #4: Getting Lost 

Dementia often has an effect on the brain’s visual centers and ability to recognize patterns and spatial tasks. This can interrupt a person’s capacity to recognize even their most familiar driving and walking routes.

If you find that a loved one is getting lost more often, especially in places that they usually know very well, this could be an early sign of dementia, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Dementia Warning Sign #5: Personality Changes

It’s not unusual for people to go through periods of difficult moods, seasons of sadness, or other emotional challenges based on their circumstances. But frequent, unexplained mood swings, rapid changeability, and a sudden emotional shift with no apparent cause can sometimes mean that something else is going on under the surface.

Kiger writes, “A loved one who begins acting unusually anxious, confused, fearful or suspicious, or who becomes upset easily and seems depressed is cause for concern.”

Dementia Warning Sign #6: Confusion About Time and Place

Similar to the note about getting lost, someone showing early signs of dementia may forget where they are, or may seem confused about how they arrived there. That is a red flag and should not be ignored.

Additionally, according to Jason Karlawish, M.D., a Pennsylvania-based neurologist and professor of medicine, disorientation about time should not be ignored, either. If a loved one routinely forgets what day of the week it is, that could be a worrying sign. That’s one reason cognitive tests typically ask the patient for the day and date, and have them draw a clock with the hands pointing to a specified time.

Dementia Warning Sign #7: Misplacing Things

This is a common symptom of dementia is one of the more famous “early signs”, but it bears repeating that simply misplacing items occasionally is not necessarily something to worry over. We all do that.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the deeper issue lies in routinely putting those items in strange places, or being unable to retrace your steps to find those items once you realize that they are lost. Again, watch for repetitive patterns of uncharacteristic behavior.

Dementia Warning Sign #8: Troubling Behavior

This one may be a bit more abstract, but it does require an awareness of your loved one’s unique personality and patterns. If you notice changes that contrast sharply with your loved one’s typical demeanor, skills, and behavior, then this is worth noting, especially where those changes are risky or unhealthy.

As Kiger puts it, “If your family member seems to have increasingly poor judgment when handling money or neglects grooming and cleanliness, pay attention.” Indeed, financial problems are frequently an early warning sign of cognitive decline.

Dementia Warning Sign #9: General Apathy

Sure, we all go through times of wanting and needing solitude. But if your loved one suddenly displays a loss of interest in family, friends, work, and the things they enjoy and look forward to, that can be a key warning sign of the beginnings of dementia.

Kiger explains, “A 2023 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that apathy may even be a sign that someone is progressing from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) — symptoms of memory loss or thinking problems that are not as severe as dementia — to Alzheimer’s disease. People with MCI are at an increased risk of developing dementia.”

Dementia Warning Sign #10: Forgetting Old Memories

Lastly, most of us are familiar with one of dementia’s more infamous symptoms: memory loss.

Forgetting or misremembering occasional memories isn’t always a bad sign, but when that forgetting becomes persistent and pervasive, the cause should be investigated as soon as possible. This is especially true when stories you know your loved one has told before get twisted and garbled. It may be time for a cognitive evaluation.

From the Mayo Clinic: Different Types of Dementia

As mentioned previously, dementia is not usually one diagnosis, but is often a symptom of another condition. There are actually multiple conditions that cause dementia, so for the benefit of our readers we have provided this list from the Mayo Clinic’s National Institute on Aging. According to the Mayo Clinic, these are the most common causes of dementia, but it is also possible to have “mixed dementia”, which is a combination of two or more of the following:

  • Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s is characterized by amyloid plaques and tangled fibers in the brain and by a loss of connections between nerve cells. Damage initially appears in the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory formation, and gradually spreads.
  • Vascular dementia: The second most common type of dementia results from damage to the vessels that supply blood to the brain. It tends to affect focus, organization, problem-solving and speed of thinking more noticeably than memory.
  • Lewy body dementia: Abnormal protein deposits in the brain, called Lewy bodies, affect brain chemistry and lead to problems with behavior, mood, movement and thinking.
  • Frontotemporal disorders: Degenerative damage to the brain’s frontal and temporal lobes is the most common cause of dementia in people age 65 and younger. Symptoms might include apathy; difficulty communicating, walking or working; emotional changes; and impulsive or inappropriate behaviors.​​

Sources: National Institute on Aging, Mayo Clinic

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(originally reported at

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