How can we tell the difference between the normal effects of aging and the early signs and symptoms of dementia?
As we age, all of our bodily processes slow down. Blood flow to the brain decreases, which means we utilize oxygen and protein — key brain fuels — less efficiently than we once did.
Because the brain is receiving less than optimal support, a senior may begin to have difficulty:
- Paying attention to more than one thing at a time
- Learning something new
- Calling to mind familiar names and vocabulary words on demand.
But these occasional memory lapses or lags in information processing are not necessarily symptoms or signs of dementia! There are more than 50 “dementia mimics.” Some of the more common conditions that can look like dementia at first glance include:
- Side effects of medication, or medication interactions
- Illness or infection (urinary tract infections often create confusion and agitation in the elderly, which can resemble dementia)
- Depression or anxiety
- Vitamin B12 deficiency
- Dehydration (common in older people, because a sense of thirst decreases with age, so they may neglect to drink enough water)
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Emotional stress: feeling sad, lonely, worried, or bored, all of which may be more common for people in retirement or coping with loss, such as the death of a spouse, relative, or friend.
Is Your Senior Loved One Behaving Differently?
However, very early dementia can cause personality or behavioral shifts that have nothing to do with memory loss, and may be overlooked by doctors and family members as an early indicator of possible dementia.
A new diagnosis, Mild Behavioral Impairment (MBI), serves as an early marker for neurodegenerative disease (dementia) in people who do not yet exhibit any cognitive deficits, making it an even better diagnostic tool for prevention and treatment of dementia than Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).
An MBI checklist includes 34 questions family members and physicians can use to determine if changes in behavior have been present for more than six months, indicating a departure from long-standing behavior patterns. The questionnaire covers interest, motivation, mood, impulse control, social skills, empathy, and sensory experiences.
Sample questions include:
- Does the person lack curiosity in topics that would usually have attracted her/his interest?
- Has the person developed sadness, or appear to be in low spirits? Does she/he have episodes of tearfulness?
- Does the person feel very tense, developed an inability to relax, shakiness, or symptoms of panic?
- Has the person become more easily frustrated or impatient? Does she/he have trouble coping with delays, waiting for events, or for their turn?
- Has the person started talking openly about very personal or private matters not usually discussed in public?
- Has the person developed beliefs that they are in danger, or that others are planning to harm them or steal their belongings?
While some of these signs are classic symptoms of encroaching dementia, they can also be the result of one or more of the dementia imposters listed above, which is why a thorough evaluation by a medical professional trained in cognitive health is vital.
A Dementia Diagnostic Checklist
Now that you know some of the earliest behavioral warning signs of dementia, as well as the underlying conditions that look like dementia but actually signal other causes that need to be corrected, here are 10 classic dementia symptoms to bear in mind. If you or a loved one begins to exhibit any of them on an ongoing basis, consult your doctor ASAP:
- Word fumble. Fishing for the right word, and finding your brain substitutes one that isn’t quite right? It happens to all of us from time to time. If it starts happening to you or your loved one on an ongoing basis, however, it indicates a problem with the language processing centers of the brain.
- Case of the missing keys. This is the example most people use when depicting dementia: if you misplace your keys in the wrong room, or leave them in your car, that’s one thing. Finding them in the freezer or the medicine cabinet — or not knowing what the keys are for — signifies a memory issue.
- The recipe she knew by heart. If your mom is having difficulty preparing a meal she’s made many times, or dad can no longer balance the checkbook, these changes can indicate the beginnings of dementia.
- Easily distracted. In our digitally distracted age, it may seem as though everyone has dementia to some degree. For someone struggling with early stage dementia, however, this will appear as a hard time making or following through on plans, or concentrating on something like a crossword puzzle.
- Poor judgment. Is your loved one wearing a sweater in August, when it’s 90 degrees outside? Or putting on sweatpants and a T-shirt when you’re going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant? The lack of judgment could indicate developing dementia.
- Lethargy. Many people’s energy wanes as they grow older. But feeling listless and uninterested in previous activities could also indicate that your loved one is in the early stages of dementia.
- Trouble with time. While most of us feel we don’t have enough time these days, someone with dementia may not grasp the distinction between next week and next year. If they keep asking you when an event is going to take place, or seem confused by the concept of past and future, it may be a sign of memory loss.
- Where am I? Time and space orientation go hand-in-hand. Someone with dementia may have trouble recognizing where they are, even if it’s a familiar place they’ve been many times.
- Repetition. This can be one of the most frustrating signs for those who are caring for a loved one with memory impairment: repeatedly asking the same question, or telling the same story several times in the same conversation, unaware of the repetition.
- Fear of change. Because people in the early stages of dementia are aware of what’s happening to them, they may cling to routine as to a life raft, resisting even the smallest disruption to their routine.
When Memory Care Is the Best Option
At Kensington Place, we recognize that memory loss is life-changing for everyone involved, and seek to focus on each resident’s strengths.
We encourage our senior residents and loved ones to find joy in the moment. Our goal is to make the days ahead more manageable, comfortable, and peaceful for those who live in our cozy environments, which are tailored to meet the evolving needs of residents with memory loss.