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How to tell if memory loss is normal or an early sign of dementia

Posted 05/09/2017 by Fallon Health

By Gerald Gleich, M.D.

Does your mom misplace the keys once in a while? Did your uncle forget a new acquaintance’s name? Does your spouse come home from the supermarket without essential items on the list? 

You may worry that you’re seeing signs of Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia, but this type of forgetfulness may be a result of stress, depression or normal aging. People dealing with stress and depression may have poor concentration, which can make them appear to have memory problems. 

A certain amount of memory loss is an expected part of the aging process. Forgetting a name, car keys, or an item on a shopping list is within the normal range—but if memory issues start to impair function or relationships, it’s time to take a closer look

Signs of dementia

If you are concerned about dementia in a loved one, notice how he or she is managing the daily activities of life. While it’s common for a person to briefly forget which day it is, someone with dementia may forget the day, season or year entirely. A forgotten word here or there is normal, but being unable to manage a conversation is not. Missing a payment or making a miscalculation in a checkbook register happens to nearly everyone once in a while, but if it’s a regular occurrence, it may be a sign of a deeper problem.

If your loved one is experiencing issues with two or more of these functions, dementia may be the reason: 

  • Memory
  • Language and communication 
  • Focus and attention
  • Reasoning and judgment
  • Visual perception

However, dementia is not something that can be diagnosed without medical assistance. It’s important for your loved one to discuss the situation with a health care provider and have an evaluation. If your loved one agrees, you—or another trusted family member or caregiver—should go to the appointment too. Another point of view can help the health care provider get a more complete picture of what is happening. 

Importance of detecting dementia early

The fear and stigma of a dementia diagnosis causes some people to delay talking to their health care provider. Please do not wait. An early and accurate diagnosis of dementia is an important key to asking the right questions and finding the right resources to help meet the challenges ahead.

While no treatments available today can reverse the effects of dementia, some medications or interventions may slow its progression. Other medications can help the mood disorders, anxiety and hallucinations that may result from and co-exist with dementia. Medical evaluation can determine whether other medical conditions or medication side effects are contributing to the problem, and may also lead to important recommendations to improve the situation.

Your loved one’s health care provider can also help guide discussions about advanced directives, health care proxies, financial management and overall care goals to help plan for the future.

10 warning signs

The Alzheimer’s Association provides many helpful resources, including this list of 10 warning signs that can aid in detecting dementia early:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • New problems with words in speaking or writing
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  • Decreased or poor judgment
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Changes in mood and personality

If your loved one is experiencing any of these signs, it’s time to have a conversation with a health care provider. For more information about signs of dementia, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website.

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