Dementia: Early Signs and Symptoms

The severity of symptoms defines the three stages of dementia. This article teaches how doctors diagnose dementia and how symptoms affect daily life.

By Ability Central

29 March, 2023

An older white woman with gray hair hugs her white-haired mother from behind

Dementia is not a single disease but a broad term covering many specific medical conditions. So, how can you tell if the symptoms you notice are a normal part of aging or a form of dementia? In this article, Ability Central breaks down the early signs of dementia and when to see a doctor. It addresses the following concerns:

  • What are the stages of dementia-related symptoms?
  • How does dementia affect everyday activities?
  • How can a caregiver help a person with dementia?
  • Where do I go to receive an evaluation for dementia?
  • Where can I get more information about dementia?


What are the stages of dementia-related symptoms?

Symptoms of dementia result when healthy nerve cells in the brain stop working, lose connections with other brain cells, and die. 


There are three stages of dementia.

  • The early stage of dementia is often overlooked because the onset is gradual. Symptoms may include forgetfulness, losing track of time, and getting lost in familiar places.
  • In the middle stage of dementia, the signs and symptoms become clearer. The person may forget recent events, become confused at home, have difficulty communicating, need help with personal care, and have behavioral changes.
  • In the late stage of dementia, there is near total dependence and inactivity. The person becomes unaware of time and place, has difficulty recognizing relatives and friends, has difficulty walking, and may experience extreme behavior changes, including aggression.


How does dementia affect everyday activities?

In the early stages of dementia, there may be a loss of interest in hobbies and activities, mood changes, depression, and anxiety. As the of symptoms of dementia progress, they can have a profound effect on a person’s ability to communicate effectively for themselves, limiting their independence and increasing their need for support from caregivers. The person may also begin needing assistance with dressing, grooming, bathing, or using the bathroom, but it is best to give them as much independence as possible for as long as possible. 


As dementia progresses to the middle stage, work, medication management, and keeping track of personal finances become difficult or impossible.


Once a person reaches the severe stage of dementia, a family member or caregiver has likely taken over most day-to-day activities.


To learn about preparing for long-term care, see Dementia: Planning for Long-term Care.


How can a caregiver help a person with dementia?

As symptoms progress, it is essential that caregivers follow these general rules:

  • Stay calm
  • Give one direction at a time
  • Prioritize what is important
  • Give day-to-day tasks extra time
  • Take a break if it’s not going well and try again later
  • Practice the activity in the same routine every day


Better communication can make it easier to meet the needs of the person with dementia and for you to understand each other. Try these tips:

  • Speak clearly, slowly, and in short sentences
  • Make eye contact
  • Give time to respond
  • Let them speak for themselves 
  • Acknowledge what they have said
  • Provide simple choices
  • Rephrase questions if the person has difficulty communicating



Where do I go to receive an evaluation for dementia?

Doctors have a series of tests to evaluate dementia-related symptoms. These include:

  • Cognitive and neurological tests assess thinking and physical functioning.
  • Brain scans can identify strokes, tumors, and other problems.
  • Computed tomography (CT) produces images of the brain and other organs.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has detailed images of body structures, including tissues, organs, bones, and nerves.
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) provides pictures of brain activity.
  • Psychiatric evaluation to help determine if depression or another mental health condition is causing or contributing to the symptoms.
  • Genetic tests look for genetic variations that affect someone’s risk of developing dementia, but these tests cannot be used to diagnose dementia. 
  • Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) tests measure the levels of proteins or other substances in CSF.
  • Blood tests to measure levels of beta-amyloid.


Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease

Dementia is a general term used to describe a loss of memory and other cognitive abilities that interfere with daily life and a person’s ability to communicate. Alzheimer's disease is a specific type of dementia that gradually worsens over time. It is a physical illness that damages the brain, leading to symptoms of dementia. While Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia, there are many other types as well. However, it is important to note that not all dementia is caused by Alzheimer's disease.

Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease. 


Where can I get more information about dementia?

Ability Central has multiple resources to learn more about dementia, including:


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