Early signs of dementia and what can be done

Dementia is not easy to diagnose as it is not a single condition and so there is no one test that professionals can use.  

Diagnosing dementia

Dementia is a medical term used to describe a collection of conditions where the mental function has deteriorated.

Depression, tiredness, alcohol, the side effects to medication and other illness can all result in a reduction in brain function but equally, it could be the early signs of dementia.  It is therefore important to consult a GP as soon as possible so that an accurate diagnosis can be made and you are given the right support and treatment.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia among older adults.  The exact cause of Alzheimer’s is still not known but it is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder results in memory loss and cognitive decline.

There are other types of dementia which include vascular dementia (caused by supply problems of blood to the brain, usually after a stroke).  Lewy body dementia or DLB is a further type along with Picks disease and other rarer diseases of the brain.

What are the signs?

The most common early symptoms of dementia include:

  • Decline in short-term memory – forgetting the names of familiar people and objects, losing things, not knowing the day of the week, month or year.
  • An inability to perform easy tasks – previously simple tasks become increasingly impossible
  • Problems with language – forgetting simple words or substituting unusual words, making them harder to understand
  • Diminished understanding – problems with spatial awareness, judging distances or following conversations
  • Mood, behaviour or personality changes – often first noticed by a close friend or relative

As dementia advances, memory loss and communication difficulties become more severe.  Such symptoms as compulsive or repetitive behaviour may develop along with behavioural problems.  Sleep patterns are likely to be disturbed and some may have hallucinations or delusions (believe things that are not true).  Many have communication and mobility problems and in the later stages of dementia, incontinence is common.

How to get a diagnosis

You must consult your GP in the first instance.  You may then be referred to a psychiatrist with experience of treating dementia, neurologist or geriatrician.  The specialist will need to talk to you and confirm details with a family member. They may ask you to undertake a test to ascertain cognitive abilities (Mini-Mental State Examination).

The shock of being diagnosed with dementia may leave you feeling scared and unable to take it all in.  But when you can, it is important to make a plan for the future so you get the expert help and support you will need.

Talk to your family and friends about your diagnosis as it will affect everyone around you.  There are voluntary organisations, the NHS and social services that can help.

How to help yourself

While you are still able to make clear decisions for yourself there’s a lot you can do.  There may be small things to change but there is no reason why with treatment and support you cannot lead an active life with dementia.  Research suggests that if you are physically and mentally active it may help to delay its progression.

  • Do continue with any existing hobbies or activities as these can help you feel good
  • Exercise, however small, decreases the possibility of developing other conditions, including vascular dementia
  • Continue to undertake daily tasks as long as you can. If they become more difficult there may be other ways of making them easier or your GP can tell you about treatments or services that are available in your area.
  • There is medication available that may slow dementia down and there are many different ways that your GP can recommend to help you manage.
  • It is useful to keep a notebook of things you need to remember
  • It may help to put labels on the front of drawers and cupboards to help you remember where to keep things.

Can I reduce my risk of dementia?

There is no clear reason why dementia occurs or how to prevent it.  However, as recommended by the NHS, you can take control of your physical and mental health by following the lifestyle changes listed below.

  • Keep alcohol to a minimum and stop smoking
  • Keep a healthy weight by eating a nutritiously balanced diet
  • Be physically and mentally active
  • Make sure you sleep enough

Some further reading

Some useful links

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