Are you worried that you or a loved one might be developing dementia? Find out more about how to recognise the warning signs of dementia. An early diagnosis will allow you to access the right treatments and to better plan for the future.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a word used to describe a set of symptoms that affects a person’s memory and cognition or thinking, such as in the area of their language or problem-solving abilities. Initially, this may be small issues like forgetting the odd word or having to spend a few moments to try to remember what you were about to do. However, over time, they develop into more significant and disabling problems.
Dementia is the result of damage to the brain caused by diseases such as strokes or Alzheimer’s disease. Many people believe that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia mean the same thing but, in fact, Alzheimer’s disease is only one form of dementia, which covers a wider range of diagnoses.
The five most common forms of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy-Body disease, vascular dementia, fronto-temporal lobe dementia and mixed dementia, which is when there is more than one cause of dementia present.
Resources: Alzheimer’s Research UK
The importance of an early diagnosis
Many people are afraid of the prospect of developing dementia, or of their loved ones developing the condition. In fact, according to a study conducted by the Alzheimer’s Society, more than half of people who are worried that they are showing symptoms of the condition put off getting a diagnosis for up to a year.
However, although the idea of getting a dementia diagnosis may be frightening, there are several good reasons for seeing a doctor when you first start to notice symptoms. If there are problems with your memory, there can be real benefits to knowing this early.
Benefits of an early diagnosis
If you know what you are dealing with, you will be able to access the right support that will help you to take control, plan your future and live as well as possible.
Your fears may be wrong and your symptoms might actually be indicative of something else, something treatable like depression or an infection.
You will get the right information about your condition and will be able to learn about what you are facing, giving you an understanding of the symptoms and an explanation of what is going on.
You will have access to the right treatments, many of which are more effective when they are started early on in the progression of a disease.
Research from the Social Care Institute for Excellence suggests that “an early diagnosis helps someone with dementia to continue to live independently in their own home for longer”, and hospital and care home admissions are reduced.
How can I tell if I have dementia? Understanding the early warning signs
The early stages of dementia are not always obvious, and symptoms and problems might develop slowly. To add to these difficulties, early signs of Alzheimer’s and dementia are frequently easy to dismiss as a normal sign of ageing.
However, if you know what to look out for, you can keep an eye on yourself and your loved ones and identify symptoms early. Some of the early warning signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s include:
Have you started to forget the plans you make or where you are supposed to be? Memory problems can include difficulties remembering new information or forgetting people’s names. Of course, everybody does this from time to time but, if it is happening frequently, it can be an indicator of a problem.
In early signs of dementia, the memory loss is often subtle and minor, such as forgetting what you had for lunch or why you went into the kitchen. Is this seeming like it’s more of a problem than usual for you?
Forgetting how to do simple tasks
Have you found that you go to do an everyday task, like boiling an egg, and forget how to do it?
Difficulties with language
Are you forgetting what words mean or using the wrong words in a sentence? Finding the right words when you are speaking can become more difficult, which means that conversations can move more slowly and perhaps be frustrating.
Becoming confused and disoriented
Have you been getting mixed up in familiar places? Some people who are experiencing dementia lose their sense of direction, they may struggle to follow directions and fail to recognise places they have previously known.
Problems with communication
Have people told you that you are being repetitive when you talk? Perhaps you ask the same questions again and again. Trying to follow conversations can become tiring, which can also lead to anxiety and mood swings, as discussed shortly.
Difficulty with numbers and time
This can include having problems dealing with money, getting up in the nighttime, or getting ready for work even if you have been retired for some time. Have you found yourself confused with these things?
Putting things down in unusual places
Have you been losing things and finding them in odd places? This can include finding that you have put your keys in the microwave or your coffee cup in the fridge.
Have you been moving from happy to sad, and back again, rapidly? Or have you experienced anxiety and depression for the first time? Experiencing symptoms like those of dementia can indeed cause stress and upset, but these experiences can also be part of the dementia, not a result of it.
All of these signs and symptoms are tiring in themselves, and can make even outgoing people seem more shy and retiring. However, other shifts in personality can take place and, sometimes, people who have always been introverted may have a boost of confidence and become quite extroverted when they develop dementia.
Have you found that you are avoiding activities that you normally enjoy? Perhaps you find your weekly card-playing night too difficult to navigate or you are worried you will get confused in church and not recognise your friends.
This can manifest as listlessness and a loss of interest in something you used to enjoy. This can also be a symptom of depression, which, as mentioned above, can also be an early sign of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
You do not need to have every symptom on the list above to go and see your doctor. If you have more than one of them and they are worrying you, make an appointment with your GP and see what they have to say. Even if they seem like mild symptoms at the moment, early diagnosis is key to a better outcome, and if you notice these problems, getting help soon can really help.
What to do if you suspect dementia
When to see your GP
Although it is more common in retired people, dementia can occur in people from around the age of 30 onwards. As dementia can affect more than your memory, including how you act, how you get around and how you speak, just being forgetful does not indicate dementia by itself. But you should never ignore symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer’s: they will not get any better if you hide the problem.
If you notice that there are problems getting in the way of your daily life, especially if they drag on for months, it may be time to talk to your GP, who is preferably somebody who knows you well. They will ask you about what you have been experiencing, they will examine you, and may do some blood tests and some memory and cognitive tests (such as asking you to name some animals or remember a street name).
The GP will want to rule out conditions such as:
Medication side effects
If the GP is concerned, they will probably refer you to a specialist at a memory clinic.
Seeing a dementia specialist
The person who diagnoses dementia will normally be a specialist, such as a psychiatrist (a specialist in mental health), a geriatrician (a specialist in the physical health of older people) or a neurologist (a specialist in the nervous system). They will carry out more in-depth tests than your GP did, including:
Memory and mental assessments
Brain imaging tests
There is not one single test that will diagnose dementia; you need to have a combination of tests and conversations with your doctor, looking at your history and how your problems developed, to put a picture together to see whether or not you have dementia and, if so, what type.
A nurse, doctor or psychologist could carry out different tests over a series of appointments, to inform your specialist about what your situation is.
If you do have a form of dementia, the doctor should communicate this clearly to you. They should also, ideally, talk to your family or whoever is closest to you, so that they understand your circumstances and what the next steps might be.
How dementia care can help
A diagnosis of dementia can feel devastating, and caring for somebody with dementia can be challenging, but it is important to use this time to make plans and work out how you want things to be.
There is no cure, although research is ongoing, so identifying the kind of care you want, which is tailored to your precise needs and abilities, can make a big difference to your day-to-day life.
At-home care that is designed to meet your needs can be adapted as a disease progresses. Things will change as time goes on, and care should change along with that to suit your skills and symptoms.
Facilitate social interactions with those you care about
Help you to keep to familiar routines
Encourage you to get involved in activities and help you along
Help with day-to-day needs like getting washed and dressed and making sure you eat regularly if you have issues with that
Professional home carers who have specialised in conditions related to dementia and Alzheimer’s are always concerned about making sure that those they care for maintain their dignity at all times. They encourage activities that will help to keep somebody cognitively stimulated, and are trained in how to manage symptoms and help a person to deal with their own condition.
This kind of specialist at-home dementia care is invaluable for the person who has been diagnosed with dementia and wants to stay at home, and to reassure their family and friends that they will be safe and well looked after.