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I'm a Dementia Doctor and These are the 5 Most Common Symptoms People Miss

Neuropsychologist shares signs of dementia people often miss. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Being proactive about brain health is one way to live a longer quality of life and help reduce the risk of dementia. According to the World Health Organization, more than 55 million people worldwide are living with the crippling condition that can rob your memory, judgment and performing day-to-day activities. WHO states, "Dementia is currently the seventh leading cause of death among all diseases and one of the major causes of disability and dependency among older people globally."

"The brain is one of the body's most vital areas. Just as we routinely get our blood pressure and cholesterol evaluated and undergo other health screenings, we need to regularly check our brain health too," said Alzheimer's Foundation of America President & CEO Charles J. Fuschillo, Jr. said in a press release about memory screenings. The AFA encourages screenings and states, "Memory screenings are an important part of a good health and wellness routine, even for individuals who are not experiencing memory problems. Screenings take just a few minutes, are noninvasive, and consist of a series of questions, administered by a qualified professional, to gauge memory, language, thinking skills, and other cognitive functions. Screenings do not provide a specific diagnosis but are an important first step in identifying a potential memory impairment that should be comprehensively examined by a physician."

Dementia has many symptoms that can go unnoticed, but paying attention to the warning signs is key for preserving memory and fighting the condition. The AFA says, "Early detection of memory issues is important. In the case of a treatable or curable underlying condition, such as a vitamin deficiency, thyroid condition, sleep apnea or urinary tract infection, screenings allow the person to begin treatment more quickly." Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with Hayley B Kristinsson, PsyD, Neuropsychologist, UCI Health who explains what to know about dementia, five signs people often miss and how to help lower the risk of dementia.  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

Comforting Senior Husband Suffering With Dementia

Dr. Kristinsson explains, "The term dementia describes a constellation of symptoms and there are different types of dementia, with Alzheimer's disease being the most common. Dementia is not a part of normal aging and is often preceded by a period of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), during which the individual is experiencing changes in memory or other cognitive skills but is still able to carry out activities of daily living (ADLs). When the individual begins having trouble with ADLs (e.g., medication and financial management, driving, etc.), it often signals that the disease has progressed and they may meet criteria for a dementia diagnosis.

I recommend seeking out a geriatrician or neurologist who specializes in neurodegenerative disorders. Most medical centers provide information on their websites about providers and specialties. If you are not sure who to make an appointment with, try calling the neurology department and they can assist you with finding the most appropriate provider. Nonprofit organizations, such as the Alzheimer's Association, often provide resources on their websites for finding appropriate medical services. Many of the providers at academic medical centers also do research, so you know you are getting the most up-to-date information and treatment."


5 Signs of Dementia that People Often Miss


Dr. Kristinsson says, "People are often aware that memory loss that interferes with daily functioning raises the possibility of dementia, however, dementia can impact other aspects of cognitive functioning. Different types of dementia can present with a different pattern of cognitive decline. For example, in Alzheimer's disease memory is usually the cognitive domain that is impacted first. People with dementia may experience changes in their visuospatial functioning, including difficulties judging distances. They may experience language changes, such as frequent word finding difficulties or using the wrong word for an object. There can be changes in executive functioning, marked by difficulties with problem solving or judgment. 

Anxiety and depression are common in individuals with dementia, and they may experience significant changes in mood and personality. People living with dementia may have difficulty completing familiar tasks, such as trouble driving to familiar locations. They may also experience slowed processing speed and difficulty concentrating and following through with tasks."


How to Help Lower the Risk of Dementia

Group seniors with dementia builds a tower in the nursing home from colorful building blocks

According to Dr. Kristinsson, "Diet alone cannot prevent the development of dementia; however, the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) is a based on research in the neurodegenerative disorders field and is important in the management of modifiable risk factors that can contribute to the development of some types of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. It is important to incorporate green leafy vegetables, whole grains, berries, fish, and nuts while cutting down on red meat to improve brain health.  Heart health is strongly linked to brain health, so it is important to eat a heart-healthy diet to promote healthy brain aging. It is important to remember that reducing risk does not necessarily mean preventing dementia altogether. You can reduce your risk but still develop dementia, but you may develop it later in life or be less likely to develop it with certain lifestyle modifications.  Regular physical activity promotes healthy brain aging and can help with the management of cardiovascular risk factors, which may lower one's risk of developing dementia.  A multi-domain intervention approach appears to be key, which involves not only physical exercise but also social activity, nutrition, and cognitive exercise.

Cognitive exercise is important for maintaining good cognitive functioning throughout the lifespan and may help prevent and/or slow any current or further cognitive decline. Research is mixed regarding the effectiveness of brain games in preventing dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. However, the key appears to be stimulating your brain to work in ways that it's not accustomed to, such as learning a new language or learning to play an instrument. There are numerous computer games, apps, and websites that offer brain training exercises. When choosing a brain game or training activity, it is important to choose something that challenges you but is not so hard that you become discouraged. Regular physical activity promotes healthy brain aging and can help with the management of cardiovascular risk factors, which may lower one's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease." 


How to Slow Down the Symptoms Once Diagnosed

Mature woman sitting upset at home.

Dr. Kristinsson tells us, "There are several FDA approved medications for the treatment of some types of dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. These medications are not curative and they either treat the symptoms of dementia or change disease progression. Other types of medications may also be used to treat the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia. It is also essential to continue engaging in healthy brain aging activities, including physical and cognitive exercise, social activities, and nutrition.

When seeking care for dementia you will likely be asked many personal questions and have to repeat your story to different providers. Questions may seem irrelevant at times, but dementia impacts all areas of your functioning and your provider needs sufficient detail in order to render an accurate diagnosis. Patients are frequently referred for neuropsychological evaluations to assess their cognitive and psychological evaluations. These types of evaluations are extensive and consist of completing tests to examine different facets of cognitive functioning. 

They can be used to distinguish between different types of dementia and aid in treatment planning. Caregivers take on a great deal of responsibility and have to cope with watching their loved one decline as the disease progresses. This can cause significant stress and I recommend caregivers seek out supportive and educational resources, such as caregiver support groups. The Alzheimer's Association provides essential information for caregivers on their website and can help you locate local resources."


Dementia Treatment Options

older man with dementia talking to doctor
Shutterstock / Robert Kneschke

Dr. Kristinsson states, "Treatment of dementia requires an interdisciplinary approach. Patients are often initially seen by their primary care physician, who may refer them to a neurologist. Neuroimaging and neuropsychological assessment are often performed to aid in diagnosis. Treatment of dementia depends on the type in addition to where the patient is in the disease process. Your doctor may recommend certain medications, which can be used to slow the progression of the disease depending on the type of dementia. Neurodegenerative disorders are irreversible, so most treatment strategies are aimed at slowing the decline and helping the individual adapt to his/her current level of functioning. 

Treatment may also involve modifications of the patient's living environment to ensure safety or arranging for caregiving services. If you are considering alternative treatments such as dietary supplements, I strongly recommend that you consult with your doctor. Many of these treatments are not FDA-approved and have not undergone sufficient scientific research. A supplement may be called "natural" but can still contain powerful substances that have not met FDA standards. This can lead to adverse reactions when combined with prescription medications so make sure to check with your doctor before starting anything new."

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