It’s not always easy to discern between normal signs of aging and potential warning signals of cognitive decline. But since there is no cure for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia, catching them early is key. “An early diagnosis… can improve the quality of care and quality of life and may reduce the financial and emotional impact of the disease,” the Alzheimer’s Association explains.
Dementia is also on the rise. “Rates of Alzheimer’s disease deaths increased more than 50 percent between 1999 and 2014 [and] Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death among all US adults,” reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Read on to find out about six early symptoms of cognitive decline that are easy to ignore or dismiss—but which are important to take seriously.
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“Most of us in our earlier years—before there is any cognitive decline—go about our daily routine automatically with little thought involved,” says Bill Cohen, a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA).
These chores, errands, and habits can include activities like doing laundry, getting dressed, or cooking. But “a common symptom, particularly of Alzheimer’s, is the inability to perform daily tasks,” Cohen says. And sometimes it’s a combination of physical challenges and loss of memory of confusion that can make daily tasks “difficult or dangerous,” HealthGrades reports.
Some memory loss is typical as people get older. “Almost 40 percent of us will experience some form of memory loss after we turn 65 years old,” explains the Alzheimer Society. “For the most part, our memory loss is mild enough that we can still live our day-to-day lives without interruption.”
The Alzheimer’s Association lists some examples of memory loss that could signal dementia, including “forgetting important dates or events, asking the same questions over and over, and increasingly needing to rely on memory aids (e.g., reminder notes or electronic devices) or family members for things they used to handle on their own.”
A July 2019 study published by ScienceDaily showed that 45 percent of Alzheimer’s patients exhibited a subtle early symptom: apathy.
“If a person has apathy they will have little or no motivation to do things that they would usually find meaningful and worthwhile,” says the Alzheimer Society, which notes that apathy in dementia patients is frequently due to damage in the frontal lobes of the brain. “This part of the brain controls our motivation, planning and sequencing of tasks.”
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Though subtle, the way a person handles their finances can be an early warning sign of diseases that cause cognitive decline.
Coexisting symptoms of dementia such as memory loss and cognitive problems “can lead people with dementia to have trouble handling money and paying bills,” says the National Institute on Aging (NIA). “Repeated financial mistakes can be an early sign of the disease.
A common early sign of dementia is a change in habits such as oral hygiene, bathing, or combing hair. “Over time, dementia patients start to neglect simple aspects of personal hygiene, failing to bathe or brush their teeth on a regular basis,” says Keystone Health, adding that they may also “stop cleaning the home and start to accumulate clutter.”
This can have many negative consequences. “If [patients] don’t remember to brush their teeth, oral hygiene would be adversely affected and could lead to gingivitis or other periodontal problems,” cautions Cohen. “If they don’t use proper toileting methods, they are susceptible to urinary tract infections… which may exacerbate dementia issues.”
Problems with driving can also be an early sign of dementia, Cohen says—and this can be dangerous to others, as well.
A driver with dementia may not be able to react quickly when faced with a surprise on the road,” warns the NIA. “Someone could get hurt or killed. If the person’s reaction time or ability to focus slows, you must stop the person from driving.”
The NIA warns that warning signs that it’s time to stop driving include “taking a long time to do a simple errand and not being able to explain why, which may indicate the person got lost; confusing the brake and gas pedals; and comments from friends and neighbors about driving.”