Nearly everyone will experience some degree of memory loss and forgetfulness as they age. The big question: When do these common symptoms foreshadow dementia?
Karli Urban, MD, a geriatric medicine specialist with MU Health Care and the Department of Family and Community Medicine, says dementia’s warning signs are often missed.
“The early symptoms of dementia can be very subtle,” Urban says. “Most commonly, it’s a gradual and progressive memory loss that goes undetected for months or even years. As a result, the official diagnosis will often come late in the onset of the disease.”
When dementia is diagnosed early, affected individuals and their loved ones have more time to prepare for the road ahead, take necessary safety precautions and explore treatment options that might slow the progression of the disease.
It Takes a Village
Urban says friends and family play a pivotal role in detecting early signs of dementia, and they should compassionately voice their concerns.
“Signs of memory loss are often first recognized by those closest to the individual,” Urban says. “If you notice changes or memory loss, it’s important to address those concerns in a loving manner.”
Urban notes that memory loss also could be caused by depression, anxiety, diabetes, thyroid disorder, alcohol abuse or medication side effects, so it is important to visit a medical professional to uncover the cause.
“If the symptoms are mild, scheduling an appointment with a primary care physician would be an appropriate first step,” she says. “But if you are noticing more advanced signs of memory loss or alarming behavioral changes, consider seeing a geriatric medicine specialist at MU Health Care’s SAGE Clinic. You do not need a referral from your primary care provider to do so.”
Watch for These Symptoms
Urban says to be alert for symptoms of dementia, including:
- Forgetting familiar names and faces: People of all ages struggle to remember names. There is no need to worry if an aging loved one cannot recall a person’s name after meeting him or her for the first time. However, forgetting the names of close friends or failing to recognize them at all is a sign it’s time to seek medical help.
- Unable to recall experiences and actions: A common finding in dementia is difficulty in remembering conversations or experiences. For example, a loved one may ask the same question multiple times or repeatedly tell the same story during a conversation. Also, patients with dementia may not recall specific details of an event. Don’t be overly alarmed if someone doesn’t recall the exact year he or she took a trip to Europe, but be concerned if he or she has no recollection of ever traveling overseas.
- Financial issues: Be on the lookout for overdue bills and irregular spending, as both are common signs of memory impairment in people who are typically careful with their finances. Dementia can cause people to overlook unpaid bills or purchase items they already own or simply do not need.
- Getting lost: Struggling to remember how to get to familiar locations — such as home, church or a favorite restaurant — is a warning sign of dementia.