What are the signs and symptoms of dementia?

Dementia itself is not a disease. Dementia is the name given to a collection of symptoms affecting memory, thinking and social abilities. These symptoms are the result of progressive damage to the brain brought on by one or more different conditions.

Dementia symptoms will vary depending on the type of dementia a person has and the areas of the brain affected. Dementia usually involves some form of memory loss that disrupts daily life. It is often one of the earliest symptoms family and friends notice, but there are many others.

These are the early signs and symptoms of dementia. If you notice these symptoms in yourself or a loved one, speak to your GP. They can refer you to a specialist clinic for assessment and diagnosis.

Early signs and symptoms of dementia

The early signs of dementia are often vague and subtle. It is family members or friends that usually first notice a change in their loved ones. A doctor or dementia specialist may also be able to identify certain symptoms through diagnostic tools. They can also help determine the stage of the person’s dementia.

Although the early signs of dementia can vary significantly from person to person, there are some common early signs:

  • Increasing memory loss and forgetfulness
  • Reduced concentration
  • Difficulty coming up with the right words or names
  • Difficulty with daily tasks
  • Misplacing items frequently
  • Forgetting something that was just read
  • Changes in mood or emotion
  • Poor orientation

Mid-stage signs and symptoms of dementia

As dementia progresses to the middle stage, symptoms become more pronounced. Increasing memory loss, communication difficulties and behavioural changes begin to impact everyday life. It is during this stage that many people begin to need support with their day-to-day life.

During this stage, symptoms are likely to develop in this way:

  • Memory problems and forgetfulness worsen: People may struggle to recognise even close family members or friends. They may have difficulty remembering recent events, identity, and important life details. New information can take time to retain.
  • Increasing communication and language difficulties: The person may have trouble speaking, finding the right words, or understanding what is being said.
  • Confusion and disorientation: Increasing confusion leads to people forgetting where they are or what time of day it is, even in familiar surroundings. Restlessness, wandering and sundowning are common during this stage.
  • Visual hallucinations: Some people begin to experience visual hallucinations and see or hear things that aren’t there. In the middle stages, this is most common with Alzheimer’s disease, although visual hallucinations can also occur in the early stages of Lewy body dementia.
  • People may begin believing things that aren’t there: In the later stages of dementia, people can start to become confused about reality. Paranoia and distrust become increasingly common and can lead the person to believe falsehoods, such as someone is stealing from them or wants to harm them.

Late-stage dementia signs and symptoms

In the late stages of dementia, symptoms profoundly affect a person’s everyday life. People lose the ability to carry on conversations and lose awareness of their surroundings. Eventually, people lose the ability to control their movements. Most people in this stage require round-the-clock care and support with daily living.

There are many challenging symptoms during this stage, including:

  • Physical changes, increasing difficulties with walking, talking and eventually, swallowing
  • Language skills may be reduced to a few words or lost altogether
  • Difficulty recognising familiar people, places or things
  • ‘Time shifting’ – they may believe they are living in an earlier period of their life
  • They may lose awareness of their environment or surroundings
  • Challenging behaviours can occur, often when the person is confused, frightened or unable to express a need or want
  • Changes in mood and emotion remain at this stage, including apathy, anxiety or depression
  • Weakened immune system leaving them vulnerable to infection

Although typical language and communication skills may be lost during this stage, it’s important to recognise that many people with late-stage dementia still recognise non-verbal communication. They may recognise and use gestures, facial expressions and body movements to express their feelings and needs.

According to Alzheimer’s Society, in its latest stages, the symptoms of all types of dementia become very similar.

Types of dementia and their symptoms

There are many types of dementia, and although they all share common symptoms, certain dementias are associated with specific symptoms. Some people have more than one type of dementia, and therefore a variety of symptoms, which is called ‘mixed dementia’.

The four most common types of dementia in the UK are:

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

Signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting an estimated 944,000 people in the UK. Minor memory problems are often the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease. They may be so subtle at first that it is often close family members or friends that recognise the changes before the person themselves.

Some of the signs and symptoms typical of Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages include:

  • Memory problems – forgetting names or recent events, misplacing objects
  • Difficulties with speech or language
  • Thinking and reasoning difficulties
  • Changes in vision or hearing
  • Changes in mood or emotion

Signs and symptoms of vascular dementia

There are several types of vascular dementia, but they are all caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, which ends up damaging it. The symptoms of vascular dementia are unique in that they may come on gradually or develop very suddenly.

In the early stages, the most common symptoms of vascular dementia are:

  • Difficulties with problem-solving or organisation
  • Problems following a series of tasks or steps
  • Slowed thinking
  • Short periods of confusion
  • Problems with concentration

People may also experience memory loss and language difficulties similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease.

Signs and symptoms of dementia with Lewy bodies

Dementia with Lewy bodies is caused by Lewy body disease. Tiny clumps of proteins known as Lewy bodies accumulate in the brain and damage nerve cells, leading to a number of symptoms depending on the area affected. Unfortunately, it is not yet known why some people develop Lewy bodies in the brain.

In its early stages, dementia with Lewy bodies shares many symptoms with Alzheimer’s disease, including:

  • Problems with focus and concentration
  • Difficulties with problem-solving and decision-making
  • Memory loss and increasing forgetfulness
  • Problems with vision and how they see their environment

However, dementia with Lewy body is often associated with certain symptoms not typically seen in Alzheimer’s disease, such as:

  • Hallucinations
  • Fatigue and problems staying awake
  • Difficulties with body movement
  • Very disturbed sleep

Since Parkinson’s disease is also caused by a buildup of Lewy bodies in the brain, it shares many symptoms with Lewy body dementia. Both conditions cause problems with:

  • Movement
  • Thinking
  • Mood

Signs and symptoms of Frontotemporal dementia

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) occurs when two sets of lobes, known as the frontal and temporal lobes, become damaged. As damage to the neurons in these two areas of the brain progresses,  a variety of symptoms begin to occur.

The symptoms of frontotemporal dementia vary greatly between people because they are so reliant on the areas of the brain affected. The most common type of FTD is the behavioural variant, which mainly affects behaviour and personality, while the earliest symptoms of another variant – known as primary progressive aphasia FTD – are primarily related to language.

In the early stages, a person with behavioural variant FTD may:

  • Lose motivation and struggle to focus on tasks
  • Lose their inhibitions
  • Find it difficult to plan or make decisions
  • Show repetitive or obsessive behaviours

A person with primary progressive aphasia FTD will mainly experience language difficulties in the early stages, including:

  • Lose their vocabulary over time
  • Becoming increasingly forgetful
  • Misplacing objects

Next steps

If you have noticed signs or symptoms of dementia in yourself or a loved one, speak to your GP. They can refer you to a specialist clinic, often called a ‘dementia memory clinic’, where you can get assessed by specialist clinicians.

Many of the early symptoms of dementia, like memory loss and confusion, can have different causes, including thyroid problems, urinary infections and certain medications. Many of these can be easily resolved, so it is important to get an expert opinion. A dementia diagnosis is made through a range of cognitive tests and sometimes also requires brain scans or blood tests.

Our free Dementia Care Guide has practical advice and guidance for families on getting a dementia diagnosis and possible next steps. You can download it here.

‘Outstanding’ dementia care at home

We know how worrying and stressful it can be when faced with the reality that a loved one living with dementia or increasing memory loss needs help at home. Many families believe moving their loved one into a care home is their only choice.

At The Good Care Group, we know receiving care in the comfort, safety and familiarity of your own home has far-reaching benefits in improving health and well-being for a person living with dementia. For over 10 years, we’ve helped countless families just like yours receive the dedicated dementia care they need in the place they love most – their own home.

We’re extremely lucky to have a team of in-house experts including an Admiral Nurse, who directly supports clients with complex dementia needs, as well as an occupational therapist, who supports those with adaptations at home as well as fall prevention.

Learn more about why families trust The Good Care Group to provide dementia care without compromise.

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