Is It Dementia? 10 Warning Signs Family Members Should Watch For

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First, your father misplaces his keys. Then, your mother has trouble finding the right word when you’re eating dinner together. The following week, they call you (again) so you can help them set up the digital video recorder to record their favorite TV show. You’re probably wondering, “Is it dementia?”

Not all people with memory problems have dementia. There are age-related changes in memory, and memory loss can be related to medical conditions, emotional problems, or mild cognitive impairment. But there are some early signs that memory loss is a symptom of Alzheimer's or another dementia.

Because everyone experiences the signs to a different degree, if you notice your loved one having memory problems, talk to their doctor to get a diagnosis and appropriate care. Some memory problems are the result of treatable conditions and reversible external factors, and you can enable them to seek treatment. If it is dementia, early detection allows your loved one to get the maximum benefits from medications that may help lessen symptoms, gives you and your family more time to plan for the future and build the right care team, and offers the advantages of support networks and services.

What Is Normal Age-Related Memory Loss?

As people get older, mild forgetfulness is to be expected. The region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories deteriorates with age, as do the hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth. Additionally, seniors often experience decreased blood flow to the brain, which can impair memory.

Normal age-related forgetfulness includes:

  • Occasionally misplacing things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys, but being able to retrace your steps to find them
  • Forgetting names of acquaintances or appointments but remembering them later
  • Sometimes forgetting which word to use or being unable to retrieve information that’s on the tip of your tongue
  • Becoming easily distracted or having trouble remembering what you’ve just read or the details of a conversation

These types of changes in memory are generally manageable and don’t limit someone’s ability to do the things they’ve always done, live independently or maintain a social life. It’s when memory loss does start to disrupt daily life that you should be worried about more serious memory problems.

What Are Other Causes of Memory Loss?

There are some causes of memory loss that can be treated and reversed, including medical conditions, emotional problems and mild cognitive impairment.

Some medical conditions that can cause cognitive impairment include tumors, blood clots or infections in the brain; some thyroid, kidney or liver disorders; alcohol abuse; and a concussion from a fall or accident. Additionally, many medications have memory loss as a side effect, including sleeping pills, blood pressure and arthritis medication, antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and painkillers. If you think your parent might have a serious medical condition that is causing memory problems or is experiencing a bad reaction to one of their medicines, it’s important to go to a doctor to get an official diagnosis.

Some emotional problems that can mimic the signs of dementia include stress, anxiety and depression. Older adults often experience major life changes — from retirement to moving out of their home to the loss of a loved one — which can cause sadness, loneliness, confusion and forgetfulness. Although these emotional problems can fade on their own, if they’re causing memory loss, it is important to get help from a doctor or counselor.

What Are the Early Signs and Symptoms of Dementia?

If you’re still wondering, “Is it dementia,” it’s helpful to know the more recognizable signs of memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders. Here are 10 warning signs from the Alzheimer’s Association that families should be aware of.

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life, such as asking the same questions repeatedly and  relying heavily on memory aides
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems, such as keeping track of monthly bills or taking longer to follow a favorite recipe
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure, such as remembering the rules of a favorite game or driving in a familiar area
  4. Confusion with time or place, such as losing track of dates or forgetting where they are or how they got there
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships, such as difficulty recognizing everyday objects and having trouble judging distance
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing, such as saying “bed” instead of “table” and forgetting common words when speaking
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps, such as finding glasses in the freezer or a watch in the flowerpot
  8. Decreased or poor judgment, such as giving large amounts to telemarketers or dressing for the wrong weather
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities, such as scaling back on projects at work and watching television or sleeping more than usual
  10. Changes in mood or personality, such as getting upset more easily and being suspicious of people

Because dementia symptoms start gradually and progress over time and because the type of memory problems varies, if you notice any of these 10 warning signs in someone you know, don't ignore them.

Is it dementia? Maybe. But it could also be a reversible cause of memory impairment. Even if it’s challenging, get a prompt diagnosis so you can enable your loved one to get appropriate treatment that can relieve symptoms — dementia or otherwise — and help them maintain a level of independence longer.

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