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Early warning signs

The early signs of dementia can be very subtle. They’re also different from person to person.

You may not have a strong feeling that something’s wrong. You might not even notice any early changes. Often, someone else notices them first.

Listed below are the most common early signs of dementia. If you notice any of these changes in yourself, or someone else notices them in you, talk to your doctor. The sooner you know, the more you can do.

Memory loss

Everyone forgets things now and then. But it could be an early warning sign if you’re:

  • forgetting more often
  • forgetting things you used to easily remember, like names and numbers
  • struggling to remember new things
  • becoming more repetitive, like asking the same question many times

Trouble doing familiar tasks

It’s normal to forget how to do something you usually do easily, just for a moment.

But it’s an early warning sign if this gets worse, or happens more often. This could be:

  • having trouble following the steps in preparing a meal
  • wondering if you already did something
  • getting lost in the middle of a task, like housework
  • having trouble paying bills or remembering your PIN number

Confusion about time and place

It’s normal to get lost, or unsure what day it is, every now and then. But it could be an early warning sign if this gets worse, or happens more often. This could be:

  • having trouble finding your way to familiar places
  • sometimes being unsure how to get home
  • getting confused about what time or day it is.

Problems with language

We all have trouble finding the right word sometimes. But it could be an early warning sign if you start to:

  • forget simple words
  • use the wrong word
  • struggle to understand written words or what people are saying.

Problems with abstract thinking

Part of thinking is being able to picture and understand things you can’t see or touch. It could be an early warning sign if you’re having more than usual trouble with:

  • directions, like ‘north’ and ‘east’
  • the flow of time, like ‘before’ and ‘after’, ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’
  • understanding numbers and what to do with them.

Trouble with distance and location

We can usually tell how far away things are and which way to go to get there. It could be an early warning sign if you have more problems than usual with:

  • judging distance or direction when driving
  • reaching out for something but missing
  • putting things down in risky places, like the very edge of a table.

Problems misplacing things

Anyone can temporarily misplace their wallet or keys. It could be an early warning sign if you have more than usual trouble with:

  • misplacing everyday objects
  • putting things in the wrong place, like your wallet in the fridge or food in the cutlery drawer
  • retracing your steps.

Changes in personality or behaviour

Everyone becomes sad or moody from time to time, and your personality can change as you get older. But it could be an early warning sign if you:

  • start having sudden mood swings, like going from calm to angry, for no apparent reason
  • become unusually confused, suspicious or withdrawn
  • start acting less inhibited or more familiar with people.

A loss of initiative

Some days we’re enthusiastic about life, others we’re less motivated. That’s normal. But it could be an early warning sign if you grow less and less motivated over time, like:

  • neglecting your housework or personal hygiene
  • putting in less effort at work
  • socialising less with friends and family
  • needing prompting to get involved in things you’d normally enjoy.

How to notice early warning signs

It’s not always easy to notice changes in yourself. You might think it’s just normal ageing, or only mild and not worth looking into.

These changes in your brain can make it harder for you to notice them. Your brain is what you think with, so if it’s changing, so is the way you think.

Here are two things you can do to pick up changes early:

  1. Treat small signs it as if they’re bigger. If it really is small, there’s no harm in getting checked. If it’s more serious, you were right to find out.
  2. Listen to what other people notice about you. If someone close to you says they see a change, trust them. It might be easier for them to see than you.

What you can do about early warning signs

If you’ve noticed some early warning signs in yourself, or someone else has noticed them, talk to your doctor. They can help you work out what’s going on and what to do next.

Going to the doctor about your mind and brain health can be hard. It’s easy to put off, or not even think about. But the sooner you know, the more you can do.

For example: these early signs could mean a lot of things, not just dementia. If it’s some other medical condition, your doctor can arrange tests, tell you what it is and start treating it early.

Even if your doctor books you in for testing for dementia-like symptoms, the earlier you find out, the better your options for treating and managing your condition.

For more information, advice and support about early warning signs, you can contact the National Dementia Helpline any time, day or night.

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Last updated
20 November 2023