How to Spot Early Onset Dementia

Dementia isn’t one illness alone: rather it is a collection of symptoms that are caused by a number of different conditions, for example Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, no two people with dementia will experience the same symptoms, in the same way, or in the same order. This can make it very difficult for loved ones who are concerned about their family member, and how they can help them.

Here we aim to alleviate some of the bewilderment by explaining what early onset dementia is, the early symptoms of dementia most people spot, and how dementia is diagnosed in the UK.

Dementia and Early Onset Dementia

As explained, dementia is a collection of symptoms rather than one disease by itself. We sometimes hear of ‘early onset dementia’ too. This again is a broad term. In fact, you will often hear this referred to by different names including young-onset dementia. In reality, there is no real difference between the generic term ‘dementia’ and the equally generic ‘early onset’ variety. The difference is an artificial date line with early onset being categorised as starting before an individual’s 65th birthday.

The truth is that the symptoms of dementia will be similar whether it is classed as early onset dementia or not. However, typically the early onset dementia will cause early problems with mobility, movement and walking whereas this is usually a later symptom.

Those living with early onset dementia account for around 5% of those diagnosed with the condition. There are 850,000 sufferers of dementia in the UK.

The Early Symptoms of Dementia

If we look at the broader understanding of dementia as a collective description, it is possible to see the common early symptoms that individuals usually experience. It is important to remember that each dementia patient is unique and a variety of factors will affect the order in which symptoms develop, or the scope to which they affect them. Physical fitness, general health and even personality will all affect how dementia plays out.

We typically think of a classic dementia patient struggling with memory loss. While this is true, it is one of a variety of early symptoms of dementia. Typically, for a diagnosis of dementia, an individual will need a minimum of two ‘impairments’ which significantly impact their lives.

Here we explain the most common impairments:

  • Short-Term Memory Change: Small shifts in short-term memory ability are often a first hint at dementia. It’s usual with dementia for an individual to struggle to remember what happened earlier that day while they can remember an event from years ago with great clarity. This may also be experienced by easily losing belongings, or forgetting what they were doing in the middle of doing it.
  • Language Difficulties: The ability to communicate verbally is another common early symptom of dementia. An individual may struggle to find common-use words or take longer to follow a conversation or respond. They may also find it difficult to follow a story or TV programme for example.
  • Emotional Changes: Classically, dementia causes notable emotional changes, particularly with depressive episodes. Mood can swing away from the constant personality you’ve known before, which can be upsetting.
  • Listlessness: Associated with the mood changes we also tend to see listlessness and apathy. Individuals in the early stages of dementia may withdraw from activities they previously enjoyed and lose interest in their hobbies and social circles.
  • Problems with Executive Functioning: The ability to manage everyday tasks which require planning and pre-thought can be difficult with dementia. Familiar tasks which they were once confident with are now obstacles and challenges. You may also experience this if you notice your loved one is struggling with a board game, for example. Another display of this is an inability to change routine or adapt to a new system.
  • Confusion: Along with memory loss and the problems described above which affect judgment, dementia patients can easily become confused. This can be bewildering for the individual and very distressing.
  • Failing Sense of Direction: Elderly individuals who are used to living independently who are experiencing the onset of dementia may find they get lost more easily. Familiar routes and places begin to seem confusing and they lose the spatial recognition they were confident with previously.
  • Repetition: Associated with memory loss, dementia patients are also likely to repeat words, responses, questions, and even tasks.
  • Difficult Adapting to Change: In the early stages of dementia experiences can seem frightening and as such an individual at this stage may be very resistant to change. They will try to stick with the familiar in an attempt to bring order to their world.

It’s important to remember that not all of these symptoms will occur, or be consistent from day to day. The decline is usually gradual, with ‘good’ days and ‘bad’ days.

In the early stages of these symptoms, an individual will usually not be diagnosed with dementia. Instead, they are more likely to be deemed as suffering from ‘mild cognitive impairment’. The signs at this stage are a lot harder to spot and quantify. Not everyone with mild cognitive impairment will go on to develop dementia and the rate of decline varies greatly.

However, it is also important to remember that dementia is not a normal part of ageing. These symptoms should not be ignored or dismissed as simply ‘old age’. For more specific information regarding the different symptoms associated with different forms of dementia, NHS website has more information.