Dementia Signs and Symptoms: How to Tell Normal Aging from Dementia

When you spot the early warning signs of dementia in a parent, relative, or friend, it can trigger concern and uncertainty as you consider what to do next. Is it dementia? Or is it just normal aging and a bad day? Diagnosing dementia early has benefits in terms of support, planning and lifestyle, but you don’t want to jump to conclusions.

To help you better understand what you’re dealing with, here are the most common dementia signs and symptoms, as well as details about dementia and tips for telling the difference between dementia and normal aging.

Dementia Signs and Symptoms

  • Forgetfulness and problems remembering people, places or dates
  • Problems walking
  • Trouble maintaining continence
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Depression, mood swings or personality changes
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and activities
  • Hallucinations and vision problems

What Is Dementia?

Dementia is an umbrella term encompassing a variety of illnesses that diminish a person’s ability to function in everyday life. Alzheimer’s disease is the best-known form of dementia, but while Alzheimer’s disease affects more people than any other form of dementia, it is not the only type.

There are more than 50 different diseases included in the dementia category. Some of the most common dementias include:

  • Vascular dementia
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies
  • Parkinson’s disease dementia

Each of these forms will progress at different speeds and affect the brain differently, but all result in limitations to cognitive and physical functionality that restrict normal activities of daily living.

Dementia is not curable, although some causes of dementia can be reversed if caught early enough. In most cases, dementia is a progressive disease that will worsen over time. Still, by maintaining good physical, mental and emotional health, people with dementia may be able to improve their quality of life, enjoying time with friends and family.

What Are the Common Dementia Signs and Symptoms?

For many people, the first sign of dementia is marked forgetfulness. Everyone forgets things occasionally. Names slip from the brain, keys get tucked in odd places or words seem just out of reach. That’s normal for anyone, and people over 65 may experience these slight slips of memory more often than they did when they were younger. People with dementia, however, usually show more consistent or extreme lapses in memory such as not remembering people, places or events that should be very familiar to them.

Not everyone’s earliest dementia symptoms involve memory, though. Some people first experience physical changes, such as trouble with continence or a gait disturbance. People with vascular dementia often demonstrate slower-than-normal thought and greater general confusion before showing any signs of memory problems. Hallucinations and sleep difficulties may show up first for people who experience dementia with Lewy Bodies. Physical tremors and mobility impairments may be the first signs of Parkinson’s disease.

In many cases, depression will also show up as an early symptom. People with vascular dementia, the second most common form, will realize what is happening to them, leading to feelings of pervasive sadness. Many people with Alzheimer’s disease also show symptoms of depression before they start to lose their memory. The relationship between depression and Alzheimer’s is not well understood, but is well documented.

If you spot any unusual signs of sadness, irritability, grumpiness or tiredness that do not dissipate over time, urge your parent or relative to see a doctor. If you notice other signs of dementia, note their frequency and consistency. If they persist or worsen, you should get a professional medical opinion.

Dementia vs. Normal Aging

Dementia is not a normal part of aging, although the risk of dementia does increase as people grow older. Dementia occurs from non-normal pathologies affecting the brain. In Alzheimer’s disease, it’s believed that beta-amyloid proteins and tau proteins coupled with inflammation promote cellular death that results in brain shrinkage. Vascular dementia comes from damage to blood vessels in the brain that prevents nourishment from reaching the cells. In the healthy aging brain, these things do not happen.

The brain changes caused by dementia affect everyone differently but are easier to spot as they become more regular and severe. Below are a few comparisons between normal aging and dementia that will help you spot the difference.

Forgetfulness

Forgetfulness from normal aging: It’s normal to forget an appointment from time to time, slip up on a person’s name or misplace the TV remote. These things may even happen a little more frequently as you age simply because the chemistry in the brain changes slightly over time. For example, if you visit your parents’ home and find the remote control in the wrong room, that’s probably normal.

Forgetfulness from dementia: It’s not normal to have to hear the same information over and over, to regularly forget recent events or to put objects in unusual places. Going back to our example above, if you visit your parent’s home and find the TV remote in the freezer, it’s much more likely to be dementia.

Decision Making

Decision making during normal aging: A person who ages normally may make the occasional bad decision or process new information slower than they did in the past. They may need to use a recipe when cooking instead of going by memory.

Decision making during dementia: Someone with dementia might grow very confused when thinking through something relatively simple. They may not be able to follow a recipe they’ve used for years, even with the instructions in front of them.

Finances

Finances during normal aging: Someone going through normal changes might spend a little more money than usual on a trip or have trouble learning a new computer program.

Finances during dementia: A person with dementia is more likely to make serious financial missteps such as handing over large sums of money to someone they don’t know well.

In most cases, you will probably know what’s normal behavior and what might seem out-of-the-ordinary for your parent.

What to Do When You Suspect a Parent Has Dementia

If you suspect your mom or dad has dementia, what do you do?

That question alone may be stressful, so make sure to take care of yourself as well. The first thing you should do is ensure you are in a good state of mind to help your parent. Dementia is a concern, but individuals with dementia can live full, strong lives with the right support.

Second, take your parent to a doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis is critical for several reasons. If your dad or mom is dealing with a reversible cause of dementia such as vitamin B deficiency or normal pressure hydrocephalus, early treatment could slow or even reverse the symptoms. If your parent has vascular dementia, controlling the underlying pathologies such as high blood pressure and diabetes right now can help slow the disease’s progression. Early diagnosis also means that people who have Alzheimer’s disease or another form of progressive dementia can be a part of the planning and receive the support they need to improve their quality of life more quickly.

Third, begin to talk about financial and healthcare plans along with long-term living options. It’s important to handle estate planning, power of attorney and end-of-life planning documents before your parent loses the ability to express their wishes. When it comes to residential life, some people will want to live at home. Others will prefer to move into a memory care residence right away so they can maximize their abilities without putting a greater support burden on friends and family. Others will want to make a different plan. If a dementia diagnosis is given early enough, you and your family can decide together what’s right for your parent’s situation.

Memory Care in Florida

A dementia diagnosis changes your life, but its challenges don’t have to overwhelm you. People with dementia can live long, healthy lives when their family and friends support them well.

Families seeking memory care options in Florida can contact The Atrium at Boca Raton to learn more about our approach to memory care. Our community focuses on providing the support individuals with various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, need to live strong, happy lives with their friends and families.

Learn more by downloading our memory care guide today, and please contact us for answers to any questions you or your parent may have.