Memory loss is probably the most well-known symptom of dementia, a progressive neurological disease whose risk increases with age. But not all memory loss is a sign of dementia, and the disorder can develop with symptoms that are subtle and easy to write off. “The earliest symptoms of neurocognitive disorder, or mild dementia, are often mistaken for normal aging, depression, or anxiety,” says Thomas C. Hammond, MD, a neurologist with Baptist Health’s Marcus Neuroscience Institute in Boca Raton, Florida. These are the most commonly overlooked signs of dementia to watch for. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You Had COVID and Didn’t Know It.
“Subtle personality changes are probably the most commonly missed early symptom in dementia,” says Hammond. For example, people with early cognitive decline will often spend less time with others and begin to isolate. “Patients may not actively participate in group discussions, but instead will remain quiet,” he says. “This is generally written off as simply being shy.”
A Difference in Mood
“Changes in mood are also a feature of early dementia that are commonly missed,” says Hammond. “The patient with early dementia will become apathetic, losing interest in activities they had formerly enjoyed. Family members often attribute these changes to the individual being depressed, anxious or under stress.”
“An often overlooked sign of dementia is beginning to stock up on different toiletry items or makeup,” says Jared Heathman, MD, a family psychiatrist in Houston. “When out shopping, recent purchases of frequently used items are often forgotten. This can lead to purchasing items due to the belief that they are running low. As this continues to happen, family may notice an unusual accumulation of certain items.”
Abandoning Complex Tasks
“As the memory problems pick up, the individual with early dementia will leave tasks incomplete, avoid complex games and projects and give up the financial management (like the checkbook) to a spouse or partner,” says Hammond.
“These may be subtle language changes that are not readily noticed,” says Hammond. “Words will escape them in conversation, and they will use substitutions or talk around the word they cannot recall.”
What Is Dementia?
“Dementia is not a single disease but a term that describes a collection of changes to memory, thinking, and personality that interfere with a person’s ability to function,” says Scott Kaiser, MD, a board-certified geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “This disorder can be caused by a variety of brain diseases or conditions.” Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, affecting over five million Americans.
When to See a Doctor
If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms, “it’s important to pursue a thorough evaluation to identify such concerns and address them,” says Kaiser. “There are many medical conditions and other factors which can cause reversible memory loss.” These include poor sleep, stress, or treatable mental health issues like depression or anxiety.
Although dementia is not curable, treatments are available to slow its progression. The best course of action is to consult your healthcare provider ASAP if you have any concerns.