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It can be hard to decipher the difference between the natural memory loss from aging and early signs of dementia. How do you know if the behaviors you are seeing in an aging loved one are normal? Would you know the early signs of cognitive decline?

The National Institute on Aging reports that half of people over the age of 85 may have some form of dementia. This does not mean that dementia is an unavoidable part of aging. There are many people who never display signs of dementia but receiving a diagnosis may be an ongoing concern for them.

Dementia is one of the main reasons that seniors will lose their independence. This affects millions of people, with over 50 million people currently living with it. Being aware of the signs of early dementia may allow you to recognize the symptoms in your loved one. Early diagnosis can assist you in getting help and accessing treatment for your loved one.

Watch for these 12 Early Signs of Dementia

As you interact with an aging loved one, watch for these early signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s. One symptom doesn’t necessarily mean that they are developing dementia. However, several may mean that your loved one needs to be seen by a neurologist. The top twelve early signs and symptoms of dementia include:

  1. Vision problems. For some, one of the earliest signs of dementia is changes in vision. Your loved one may have trouble reading or seeing the differences in color or contrast. He or she may also begin to experience trouble judging distances which may lead to problems driving.

    You may see that your loved one is struggling to resolve spatial relationships of various types. They may have trouble with the distance between the table and the chair or the distance between a glass and the shelf.
  2. Problems speaking or writing. In the early stages of dementia, it can be difficult for your loved one to follow conversations. You may observe your loved one stopping in the middle of a conversation with no idea how to continue.

    They may also struggle to find the right words. We all forget words from time to time and eventually remember them. People with dementia cannot retrieve the word even after trying for a time. Your loved one may also begin to repeat sentences within a conversation or say the same thing repeatedly in a short period of time.
  3. Poor judgment. Dementia can change your loved one’s ability to make good judgments. They might seem like they no longer know what is appropriate in social situations. Your loved one may ask strangers for odd things like a tissue or a quarter.
  4. Trouble with money. Troubles with finances can indicate the earliest stage of dementia. Managing money requires you to be able to think, remember and reason. These functions deteriorate with dementia. Your loved one may:
    • No longer be able to keep track of spending
    • Buy things but not remember why they did
    • Give money to telemarketers or strangers
    • Leave unpaid bills to stack up
    • Leave an inappropriately large tip or not know how to settle the check

  5. Forgetting the seasons. If your loved one is in the early stages of dementia, he or she may not be able to remember what day, date or season it is. People with dementia may think they are in a different year, sometimes one in the past.

    They may begin to lose the ability to understand that something happened “yesterday” or will happen “tomorrow”. Time begins to shrink, and dementia patients only understand what is happening in the here and now. symptom-of-alzheimers-time-and-place
    This confusion can extend to an understanding of place. For example, your loved one may be sitting in your living room, but he or she may think they are in another place entirely – usually another place that is familiar and carries fond memories.
  6. Withdrawal from work or social activities. Your usually outgoing loved one may suddenly stop participating in activities, social gatherings or hobbies. Dementia may make it difficult to remember how to interact or conduct a hobby. In the early stages of dementia, people may realize the changes that are happening and as a result, may avoid social interactions altogether. Noisy and complicated gatherings can make it more difficult for them to cope.
  7. Forgetting current details. It is normal to occasionally forget what you had for lunch that day. You might start to notice this type of behavior more often in a loved one with dementia. Although they can recall detailed memories from their childhood, they may forget where they parked the car.
  8. Getting lost. Another sign of dementia is trouble with following directions. Your loved one may get lost coming over to your house even though they have visited you many times before.
  9. Inability to focus. Dementia can make it difficult to focus on a task. Your loved one may start a project and not be able to finish it. You might see this around the house in half-finished tasks. The dishwasher sits half empty or may have dirty dishes mixed with clean! The washing machine could have day-old musty laundry. Your loved one may no longer be able to follow the steps for a recipe or may not be able to follow the plot of a movie or novel.
  10. Acting out of character. We all change as we move through life but a clear warning sign of dementia is abrupt changes in your loved one’s personality. Dementia can cause changes in the brain that affect the ability to know what is appropriate.

    Someone who has always been careful with their words may start saying whatever pops into their head. This can include often quite rude or sexually inappropriate comments. When your loved one is behaving out of character, it is often because of changes in the brain.
  11. Living dangerously. Do you worry about leaving your loved one alone? Often in early dementia, you might notice that your loved one is not making safe decisions. You might come in to find that an oven burner has been left on and the pot of water has boiled dry.
  12. Unsafe driving. Troubles with driving can also be seen. Your loved one may get lost while driving in a familiar area. You might also notice that they are running stop signs. Sometimes you will see new dings and scratches on their car.

An Early Signs of Dementia and Alzheimer’s Checklist

Noticing potential signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s in a loved one can be stressful. It can help to write down what you see so that you can reference it later when talking to a health professional. Writing down what is normal for your loved one can also help you notice what might simply be normal signs of aging. Download our checklist so you can keep track of the changes see.

Early Signs of Alzheimer's/Dementia Checklist

How to Prevent Dementia

Dementia is not a normal part of aging. Currently, there is no sure-fire way to prevent dementia but you can use these ten strategies to reduce your risk of dementia.

Before you start asking yourself, “how do I provide dementia care for a loved one?” try to understand the signs. If you observe these early signs of dementia in a loved one, talk with his or her primary care physician and ask for a referral to a neurologist for testing. Early diagnosis can lead to treatment and strategies that can make life easier and less frustrating over the long haul.


National Institute on Aging: What is Dementia

World Health Organization: Dementia

About the Author(s)

Crystal Jo is a Registered Nurse who is passionate about helping older adults live happy, healthy lives at home. As a freelance writer, she enjoys educating and inspiring seniors, and those who love them, to choose a healthy life.

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