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I'm a Doctor and Here's How to Tell If You May Have Dementia

Doctors share what to know about dementia and early signs to look out for. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

The early signs of dementia can be so vague they're often overlooked or dismissed as normal aging. It's only when symptoms become so glaring that many people realize there's a problem and by that time the disease has progressed to a point where it's hard to slow it down. Recognizing the first warning signs is key to prolonging the symptoms and maintaining a sense of normalcy. 

According to John Hopkins Medicine, "Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It affects your memory, thinking, and behavior. It often progresses to the point where it affects daily activities and functions…Early-onset Alzheimer disease currently has no cure. But healthcare providers have been successful in helping people maintain their mental function, control behavior, and slow the progress of the disease."

As the population grows older, the number of dementia cases are increasing. The World Health Organization says, "Currently more than 55 million people live with dementia worldwide, and there are nearly 10 million new cases every year." Age is the biggest risk factor and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states, "Of those at least 65 years of age, there is an estimated 5.0 million adults with dementia in 2014 and projected to be nearly 14 million by 2060." While there's no cure for the crippling condition, there are ways to help lower the risk by sleeping a solid 7 to 9 hours a night, challenging the mind with learning new hobbies and puzzles, staying social, exercising and a healthy diet. Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with doctors who explain what to know about dementia and signs that indicate you could have it. As always, please consult your physician for medical advice. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What to Know About Dementia

Portrait of worried senior man sitting on sofa in living room

Theodore Strange, MD Chair of Medicine at Staten Island University Hospital says, "Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning that affects thinking and memory. It can start insidiously as it begins to interfere with a person's daily life and activities. Difficulty with handling tasks with short term memory issues, such as having a tough time following directions, knowing what was just done and what are next steps. 

One needs to seek medical attention for Alzheimer's type dementia when memory loss, personality changes, problem solving abilities, getting lost easily from normal surroundings become apparent. This would be at a mild stage.  The worrisome signs would be first memory loss of normal routine activities or surroundings which may manifest as repeating questions or avoiding answers." 

Dr. Kate Burke MD, VP Senior Medical Advisor for PatientsLikeMe adds, "We're still learning together, and those living with dementia and those supporting people with this condition should know they're not alone. We're constantly working with our patients on the platform to gain more insight into the disease and how we can best support it."


Difference Between Dementia and Alzheimer's

Senior Hispanic Man Suffering With Dementia Trying To Dress

Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies says, "As people age, it's normal for them to have some trouble recalling names or where they left their keys. But what about forgetting how to drive to a familiar place or not knowing what day it is? Those are more severe memory problems that could be signs of dementia, Alzheimer's disease, or another brain disorder. Dementia is a severe decline in mental ability that interferes with daily life. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. 

People with Alzheimer's tend to have difficulty remembering things that happened recently or the names of people they know. They may also need help following directions, solving problems, and completing familiar tasks. If you notice any of these changes in yourself or someone you know, you must see a doctor. A cognitive assessment can help determine if the memory loss is due to normal aging or something else. Early diagnosis and treatment can improve the quality of life and potentially slow the progression of the underlying condition."


How Lighting Affects People with Dementia

Memory Disorder

Dr. Burke explains, "It's widely believed among experts that color plays a significant role in the quality of life of someone with Alzheimer's. Red is a bold color and can elicit certain behaviors when used properly. Red can increase the temperature of the room, it can make larger rooms appear smaller, and can stimulate appetite. Blue is associated with peace and calm and can lower blood pressure and anxiety. Green has been proven to reduce nervous system activity. Black is a color to pay special attention to if you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, as this color can often be perceived as scary. "

Dr. Strange tells us, "Bright lighting can be uncomfortable for most people, especially those with dementia. Softer lighting is always the better option and it will create a calmer feeling. Turning on lights gradually or with a lower wattage will provide the eyes a subtle adjustment."

Alzheimer's Foundation of America President & CEO Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr. says, "Lighting obviously influences eyesight, but it can also affect the body and behavior. Blue light rays stimulate the brain, increase alertness and elevate energy levels, but also negatively impact sleep quality in the evening. Lights which produce glare may hinder vision for someone with dementia. Flickering lights can increase agitation. Utilizing glare-free lighting aids with sight, while lighting that operates with a circadian rhythm mimicking natural patterns of high blue light in the day and low blue light at night can improve sleep and reduce agitation."


Getting Dressed can be a Challenge

Senior woman in consultation with her female doctor or therapist

Dr. Burke explains, "A combination of factors associated with dementia can reduce the ability to dress oneself, including agnosia, or not recognizing objects within the environment; apraxia, which is the inability to perform learned skills automatically. Dressing requires memory of where clothes and items are located, in addition to the motor skills needed to put on the clothes. All of this functionality is impacted when you have dementia. Dementia can also cause a loss of organizational skills, planning, and decision-making skills."

Dr. Strange says, "When dementia progresses to a moderate stage, patients may need help with daily living activities like shopping, banking, driving or even personal activities like grooming and self-care.  Personality and behavioral changes become more apparent. The progression to severe disease occurs with symptoms including the loss of ability to communicate that may make sense, assistance with personal care including bathing, toileting and dressing, and overall, decline in physical abilities.  The earlier these stages are picked up; treatment options can be considered to slow the progression of the disease.  Some can last and be treated very effectively for over 10 years."


Common Signs of Dementia

Woman comforting anxious husband

Dr. Burke tells us, "There are several warning signs of Alzheimer's, or other dementia, but these 10 signs are what you should be paying closest attention to: 

Memory loss that disrupts daily life  

  • Change in problem-solving or planning abilities  
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks  
  • Confusion with time or place 
  • Trouble understanding visual images or spatial relationships 
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing  
  • Misplacing things or losing your ability to retrace steps 
  • Decreased judgment  
  • Withdrawal from activities (both work and social)  
  • Recognizable change in personality/mood  

Dr. Strange explains, "People in the age range of 60 to 65 years old are at a higher risk for dementia, or those who have it in their family. Age related memory loss can be natural and normal. Memory loss, though common, is not the only sign of dementia. Patients with dementia (most commonly Alzheimer's) may also have problems with language skills, visual perception, and or paying attention.  Personality changes may also occur. Some early signs and warnings that may be symptoms of the beginning dementia include; becoming withdrawn, socializing less, depression, difficulty communicating and being involved in common discussions, problem solving, visual abilities like getting lost while driving and handling tasks with short term memory issues. There are some ways to slow the progression down which include healthy living with exercise and good nutrition. If there is a vitamin deficiency like B12, they'll need to replace the deficiency, and medications like donepezil, memantine or the newest approved treatment named Aducanumab, could help."  

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather