9 Early Signs of Dementia to Watch Out For

Dementia, also known as a major neurocognitive disorder or mild cognitive disorder, is a general term used to describe impaired memory, thinking, or reasoning that affects a person’s ability to function safely.

There are different forms of dementia. However, Alzheimer's disease is the most common among people over age 65.

This article explains what dementia is and why early detection is essential. Also included is a checklist that may help you spot the early signs that are not always easy to notice.

Older adult displaying signs of dementia

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What Happens in the Early Stage of Dementia?

Dementia affects everyone differently. This disease is progressive, meaning that it will worsen over time. However, while some people's symptoms seem to appear overnight, others appear to come on more slowly over several months.

Dementia is defined as memory impairment with the impairment of at least one other cognitive function, such as:

  • Language issues, such as difficulty speaking
  • Loss of executive functioning, such as difficulty with planning, understanding, or paying attention

Early Signs and Symptoms of Dementia

Although dementia typically affects older adults, it isn't a normal part of the aging process. This disease also has a range of signs and symptoms that may vary from person to person, depending on the type and cause of dementia,

Some of the early signs and symptoms of dementia may include:

  • Memory problems
  • Confusion regarding familiar places
  • Inability to concentrate or think clearly
  • Difficulty with words and language
  • Mood and personality changes
  • Poor judgment
  • Inability to concentrate or think clearly
  • Difficulties with gait or balance
  • Increased daytime sleepiness

Memory Problems

Memory problems, such as misplacing things and being unable to find them, are one of the most well-known symptoms of dementia.

Some mild forgetfulness may be a normal part of the aging process because changes in the body and brain occur as people age. However, there is a difference between mild forgetfulness and memory problems associated with dementia.

People with dementia may show other signs of short-term memory loss, such as:

  • Forgetting to pay monthly bills
  • Losing track of time or date
  • Forgetting daily plans

Language and Communication Issues

Dementia may present as difficulty finding the right words or following storylines in a conversation. Some of the more common speech and language issues in people with dementia also include:

  • Difficulties remembering people's names or finding words for objects
  • Trouble having a conversation
  • Talking louder than normal

Mood and Personality Changes

In the early stages of dementia, many people may experience mood and personality changes such as increased irritability, anxiety, and depression. Although everyone becomes moody or sad occasionally, those with dementia show more rapid personality changes and mood swings that appear for no apparent reason.

Other mood and personality changes that may appear may include:

  • Fluctuating personality changes
  • Extreme suspicion or fear
  • A new dependence on a family member
  • Withdrawal
  • Loss of empathy for others

Difficulty Completing Tasks and Planning

Dementia makes it harder to make complex decisions, plan, or solve problems. People with early dementia may start to lose their ability to plan ahead or follow through with pre-established goals.

Some people with early dementia may experience a reduced ability to do things like:

  • Follow a familiar recipe
  • Keep track of monthly bills
  • Concentrate on small tasks

Failing Sense of Direction 

People with dementia may lose their way while walking, driving, or taking public transit to familiar places that they had no trouble getting to before. In addition, people with dementia may drive or walk for long periods without realizing they are lost. Sometimes, they may forget where they are and not know how they got there. Other symptoms may include losing the ability to read a map or follow traffic signs.


In the earlier stages of dementia, confusion may be mild. People may be unaware of their memory loss and confusion, making them angry or frustrated. Confusion in the early stages of dementia may include:

  • Difficulty recalling recent events
  • Problems processing what others say
  • Difficulty making decisions


Repetition is common in people experiencing memory loss. People with dementia may say or do something repetitively, such as repeating an activity they just did or repeating a question several times. In some cases, symptoms may include collecting items obsessively.

Struggling to Adapt to Change

People with dementia may become afraid to try new experiences due to confusion and unfamiliarity. Damage to areas of the brain called "multiple demand networks" responsible for general intelligence make people with dementia more afriad of changes in their environment.

Poor Judgement

Everyone makes a poor decision once in a while. But for people with dementia, poor judgment or decision-making is more extreme and sometimes occurs before memory loss. Some examples include:

  • Overspending or mismanaging money, such as giving large amounts of money away
  • Paying less attention to grooming efforts, such as not showering for several days in a row
  • Impulsive behaviors
  • Inability to recognize dangerous situations
  • Not changing clothes because you can't figure out what to wear


Unfortunately, there is no definitive test that determines if someone has dementia. Healthcare providers diagnose dementia based on:

  • The person's medical history
  • A physical examination
  • Laboratory testing
  • Changes in thinking, daily function, and dementia-associated behaviors

It may take time to determine the type of dementia a person has. Many types of dementia have similar characteristics. Therefore, a healthcare provider may diagnose a person with "dementia" but not specify a certain type. Your healthcare provider may also refer the person to see a specialist, such as a psychiatrist, geriatrician, or neurologist.

Common Causes of Dementia

Dementia can be caused by many diseases and dysfunctions in the brain, including the following:

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. Most cases of Alzheimer's disease occur in people over 60. However, early-onset Alzheimer's can occur in people between the age of 30 to 60, although it is very rare.

Alzheimer's disease damages structures within the brain due to the development of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. In addition, people with Alzheimer's disease lose connections between their nerve cells (neurons) inside their brains. Neurons are responsible for transmitting information within the brain and to other parts of the body.

Other Types of Dementia

The following are other common types of dementia.

Frontotemporal Dementia

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) includes a group of brain disorders that occur when nerve cells in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain disappear, causing the lobes to shrink.

Lewy Body Dementia

Lewy body dementia (LBD) is caused by abnormal deposits of a protein called alpha-synuclein in the brain. The deposits, referred to as Lewy bodies, affect chemicals in the brain. This causes issues with memory loss, movement, behavior, and personality changes.

Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia is caused by disruptions to blood flow and oxygen flow to the brain, which damages important blood vessels. Vascular dementia can be caused by brain abnormalities such as strokes a person had earlier in their life. However, not everyone who has had a stroke will develop dementia.

When to Find a Healthcare Provider

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of dementia, such as confusion or memory loss, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Dementia symptoms can also mimic other cognitive disorders and health conditions. It is impossible to make a diagnosis or get treatment without seeing your healthcare provider.

Preventing Cognitive Decline 

There are some steps you can take to help prevent cognitive decline, including:

  • Keeping a regular exercise routine
  • Maintaining healthy blood pressure
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Maintaining strong connections with friends, family, and community
  • Keeping your mind active by reading, doing puzzles, or other activities that require concentration
  • Keeping stress under control
  • Seeing your healthcare provider for regular checkups
  • Managing chronic health problems like diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Avoiding risky behaviors that may cause a brain injury
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Not smoking
  • Getting regular, quality sleep


Dementia is a general term used to describe impaired memory, thinking, or reasoning that affects a person’s ability to function safely. The disease is progressive, meaning that it will worsen over time. Several early signs and symptoms of dementia include memory problems, confusion, difficulty concentrating, difficulty with words, poor judgment, mood issues, and personality changes.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia; however, several other types exist. Diagnosis may take time because symptoms overlap with many types of dementia. You can help prevent cognitive health decline by getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, maintaining healthy blood pressure, managing stress, sleeping regularly, and limiting drinking alcohol. It is also important to see your healthcare provider for regular checkups.

A Word From Verywell

Experiencing memory loss and other dementia-related symptoms can be overwhelming and frightening. But if you or a family member has unusual signs of cognitive decline, you must inform your healthcare provider. They can review your symptoms and conduct tests to see if it is an ordinary course of aging or a more serious condition like dementia.

16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sarah Jividen, RN
Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a freelance healthcare journalist and content marketing writer at Health Writing Solutions, LLC. She has over a decade of direct patient care experience working as a registered nurse specializing in neurotrauma, stroke, and the emergency room.