Developing dementia is now a bigger fear for people than cancer, so being up to speed on the different symptoms is important.
“Most people fear getting dementia, and if they have a memory slip they wonder if that’s the start of it,” says Professor June Andrews, author of Dementia: The One-Stop Guide. “However, research and experience shows that memory problems are not always the first sign, or the worst problem.”
While the below signs are by no means a guarantee of dementia, if you or a family member are experiencing them, it may be worth talking to a doctor.
1. Difficulty finding words
We’ve all had that moment when the word you want to say is just on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t drag it from the recesses of your memory. This in itself is not usually something to worry about, but if it’s becoming increasingly common, it could be an early sign of dementia.
“Dementia can affect your capacity to speak, which can cause distress,” says Professor Andrews. This is because as the brain becomes more damaged, you lose connections in the brain that help you to say the word you want.
2. Trouble with planning and following instructions
Following a favorite recipe. Playing a weekly game of bridge. These all used to be simple tasks or activities that you or a loved one could do without thinking, but it’s getting harder.
Dementia can affect what’s known as your ‘executive function’ – your ability to work things out, and is worsened if you can’t remember how to do things and the order you need to do them in.
“There are many activities we do every day on autopilot, but if you break them down they are really complicated executive functions,” says Professor Andrews. “If you have lost executive function you may know you have to do these things, but not be able to put it all together.”
The result? Confusion and slowness about how to do a task.
3. Mood changes
If a family member seems less sociable, depressed or even aggressive, these could all be associated with dementia. “Frontotemporal dementia, which affects the front of the brain, can give rise to aggression, because the frontal lobes of the brain are the place where your inhibitions lie,” says Professor Andrews.
Essentially, you lose the inhibition to reign in your emotions which, if you’re becoming frustrated about not being able to understand or carry out tasks, could lead to you lashing out, getting upset, or simply not wanting to spend time with people.
4. Sleeplessness and tiredness
As you get older, it’s natural for you to sleep for shorter periods of time, and wake during the night, but this can be even worse for someone with dementia. “Everyone has a body clock that is affected by a hormone called melatonin that is reduced in old age and even further in Alzheimer’s disease,” says Professor Andrews.
This can lead to more night time waking, which not surprisingly leads to tiredness and daytime sleeping, all signs to look out for. Certain types of dementia, such as Lewy body dementia, can also cause physical changes in the brain which trigger nightmares and could disturb sleep.
5. Problems with driving
If someone’s been driving for over 40 years, the action becomes almost automatic. But for a person with dementia, difficulty with driving can be a red light to the condition. “Driving requires quick judgement and adherence to certain rules, and someone with dementia is slowed in their judgement and has forgotten some of the rules,” says Professor Andrews.
This isn’t just because reaction times slow as you get older. It’s also because dementia affects your ability to remember the rules of the road. A person with dementia may head the wrong way round a roundabout, or even get lost driving home. It’s why the Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) requires anyone recently diagnosed with dementia to let them know of your condition.
6. Food tastes may change
Cravings for very sweet foods aren’t the norm for most people as they get older, but a change in your tastes has been linked to dementia. “Dementia is caused by brain damage and changes in your sensory perception, including taste, are all signs of brain damage,” says Professor Andrews.
In fact, an Australian study found a link between frontotemporal dementia and an increasing taste for sweet, sugary foods.
7. Falls and difficulty walking
Having a fall can be a real worry as you get older, and unfortunately, dementia can increase your risk. “People with vascular dementia are more likely to have spatial-awareness problems that create a risk that they will fall over,” says Professor Andrews.
Walking speed may also slow. A study, published in Neurology, tested the walking speed and scanned the brains of 128 people with an average age of 76. It found those with a build-up of a protein called beta-amyloid in the brain, which is associated with dementia, had a slower walking speed.
“All of us stumble once in a while, but the danger with dementia is being slow to recover from a stumble and consequently falling,” says Professor Andrews.