Dementia Early Warning Signs: 6 Patterns to Look For

It can be scary when our parents or other adults close to us start to show signs of aging. One of the most frightening moments is when we watch them forget something or get confused and we start to wonder about their well-being. Is this a sign of dementia? Do they have Alzheimer’s disease?

It’s natural to notice changes as adults grow older and there is information that will help you understand dementia’s early warning signs so you can distinguish them from normal aging. For instance, many doctors use a 12-item checklist known as the Observation List for Early Signs of Dementia, which is also known as OLD. OLD categorizes dementia’s early warning signs into subgroups, including

  • Forgetting
  • Repeating
  • Language
  • Understanding

Of the most common dementia early warning signs, here are the ones you’re most likely to see. When you notice any of these symptoms, use the OLD framework to help you categorize them to better determine if you’re likely dealing with dementia or just normal aging.

1. Recent Memory Loss

Difficulty with short-term memory is the most common early warning sign of dementia. A person may forget appointments, a new acquaintance’s name or a newly learned phone number and won’t remember it later.

The short-term nature of lost memories is an important distinction to remember. A person with dementia may forget that they already had their morning cup of coffee, but they’ll still remember the name of their favorite teacher from elementary school.

Dementia vs Normal Aging

Being unable to recall information you just learned is a normal part of aging. If your relative or friend can remember that information later, it’s probably just age-related memory loss. If they can’t recover new information, the problem could be dementia.

2. Forgetting How to Perform Everyday Tasks

This is another common red flag for people with early-stage dementia. Difficulties with task performance usually start with more complex activities like paying bills or using the DVD player. Later, you may notice more dramatic changes, like forgetting how to pour a glass of water.

Dementia vs Normal Aging

When you’re considering whether someone might have dementia, always compare current to past performance. If your mom has been burning the scrambled eggs since you were a child, don’t worry if she’s doing it now. But if she used to be a gourmet cook, those burned eggs could be a symptom of dementia.

3. Trouble with Language and Conversation

We all forget common words from time to time. You’re standing in the kitchen, making pancakes, and you can’t remember what the spatula is called. People with early-stage dementia have this problem on an increasingly regular basis. They want to ask you to pass the salt, but they can’t remember what it’s called. Or they might use the wrong word, asking you to feed the dog when they have a cat. They know it’s a cat, they just mix up the words.

Sometimes, the person will also lose track of what they’re saying in the middle of a conversation. They might stop mid-sentence, not knowing how they meant to finish it, or not know how to respond in a conversation.

Dementia vs Normal Aging

Everyone forgets words and loses track of their thoughts, especially as they get older, but it’s more obvious when the person is developing dementia. Sentences are nonsensical – “Did you pick up your sister at the vet?” –  or they lose so many words that you don’t consider it normal anymore.

4. Unintentional, Frequent Repetition

When you’re having a conversation with someone who has early-stage dementia, you may notice that they repeat questions you’ve already answered. Like when they lose track of their words, it happens more often than is comfortable.

This is one way that a symptom can be both verbal and physical – just as they’ll repeat what they’ve said, they’ll also repeat what they did. Maybe your dad will eat two lunches in one day or order a tool he already owns.

Dementia vs Normal Aging

It’s normal to forget that you already did something, but a reminder should be enough to jog the memory. If you tell your dad that he already ate lunch but he doesn’t believe you, start to keep a closer watch for other symptoms.

5. Getting Lost in Familiar Places

Your neighbor turns to you in the grocery store and asks, “Where are we?” you tell them you’re shopping, and they ask when you got there or who drove them, even though you arrived with them only 10 minutes ago.

This is a common conversation when someone has dementia, but it can be one of the scariest signs for both parties. Keep an eye on it and if it’s started to happen, make sure your relative or friend always goes somewhere with someone to ensure their safety. It’s easy for individuals with dementia to get lost or wander away when they don’t remember where they are or how they got there, which can lead to dangerous situations.

Dementia vs Normal Aging

As we get older, it becomes more difficult to remember the route to a new place. With dementia, those same lost feelings happen when they’re somewhere they’ve been multiple times before, like a relative’s home or the person’s own neighborhood.

6. Losing Orientation to Time

When you visit a person who has early-stage dementia, they might ask you why you’ve been away so long. They’re not being demanding or unreasonable – they genuinely think you’ve been gone for weeks, months or even years instead of shorter, more normal time periods. Time can pass very slowly in the mind of a person with dementia, making an hour seem like a day and a day seem like a week.

People with dementia may also have difficulty comprehending the passage of time. If it’s not happening right now, it’s hard for the person to conceptualize when it happened or will be happening. The experience can be like talking to a small child, but it’s very important to treat the person like the adult they are. People with dementia may struggle to know where they are in time and place, but they know when someone respects them or doesn’t.

Dementia vs Normal Aging

From time to time, everyone forgets what day it is. That’s nothing to worry about, especially if you remind the person and they recall that you’ve told them. But if you tell them it’s Thursday and five minutes later they think it’s Tuesday, start paying close attention to their sense of time.

Responding to Early Dementia Symptoms

A person with early warning signs of dementia is and should be mostly independent. Honor their dignity and don’t try to take over doing everything for them, unless there’s a safety concern. Offer reminders when asked or when necessary but try not to be too pointed about the fact that they forgot.

Meanwhile, set up appointments with the person’s doctor and start to think about care plans. The person might not need outside support for a while, but it’s never too early to be ready.

Homestead with Hamilton understands how important preparation is. We offer independent living and assisted living, as well as a secure memory care neighborhood so people can receive the support they need, without being pressured into a level of care they don’t yet need. And when dementia care needs increase, Homestead is here to help. Get in touch and learn more today.


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