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Doctors Warn of These Key Dementia "Warning Signs"

This is what dementia looks like.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

According to the CDC, nearly 6 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia. "Many people wrongly believe that all older people will end up with dementia and that all dementia is the same," says Dr. Ronald D. Adelman, co-chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, and the Emilie Roy Corey Professor of Geriatrics and Gerontology at Weill Cornell Medicine. "It's crucial to distinguish between mild cognitive impairment and profound or progressive Alzheimer's disease." Here are five key dementia warning signs, according to experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Memory Issues

Sacred mature woman.

Memory issues are one of the earliest warning signs of dementia. "If you used to balance your bank accounts to the penny and now you've lost track of where your household money is going, bills have not been paid and as a result electricity or phone service has been turned off," says Johns Hopkins geriatrician Sevil Yasar, MD, PhD. "Similarly, you feel lost and overwhelmed making, or even worse, being unable to make, Thanksgiving pumpkin pie with your favorite longtime recipe, it may be a sign of early brain changes."


Personality Changes

memory exercises

Personality changes are a common symptom of dementia and can appear 10-15 years before an official diagnosis. "Behavioral changes are very common and affect upwards of 95% of people with dementia," says Ganesh Gopalakrishna, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, AZ. "Many patients are burdened with depression, paranoia, or hallucinations," said Dr. Gopalakrishna. "This can be enough to make one feel unsafe even in their own home. The first step in these situations is to provide a safe environment, limiting the chances of any accidental or intentional harm to self or others."


"Sundowning" Confusion

Portrait of a worried mature woman having problems with her finances

"The term 'sundowning' refers to a state of confusion occurring in the late afternoon and lasting into the night," says Jonathan Graff-Radford, MD. "Sundowning can cause different behaviors, such as confusion, anxiety, aggression or ignoring directions. Sundowning can also lead to pacing or wandering. Sundowning isn't a disease. It's a group of symptoms that occur at a specific time of the day. These symptoms may affect people with Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. The exact cause of this behavior is unknown."


Speech Issues

Senior woman in consultation with her female doctor or therapist

Long-winded speech could be an early sign of dementia, according to researchers who compared the language abilities of healthy individuals to those with mild cognitive impairment. "They were much less concise in conveying information, the sentences they produced were much longer, they had a hard time staying on point and I guess you could say they were much more roundabout in getting their point across," says Janet Cohen Sherman, clinical director of the Psychology Assessment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital. "It was a very significant difference."


Difficulty With Familiar Tasks

Senior Hispanic Man Suffering With Dementia Trying To Dress

"With age-related cognitive decline, your processing speed or ability to perform common tasks might slow down, but it doesn't interfere with your day-to-day life," says Richard S. Isaacson, MD. "Alzheimer's disease affects ability to complete everyday tasks independently. For instance, a person might get lost while driving to an appointment or never remember the appointment in the first place."

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan