Dementia signs: How to know when it’s time to talk to your doctor

Brain Health

by Cindy D. Marshall, MD

Mar 19, 2024

We all can be forgetful from time to time. As we age, we tend to be even more so. But when does forgetfulness possibly indicate something more serious, like Alzheimer’s disease and its dementia-related symptoms?

As medical director of the AT&T Memory Center at Baylor University Medical Center, it’s a question I hear often from my patients and their families. Here’s what you need to know if you or a loved one is getting older and wondering about changes in memory or dementia.

When to seek care for dementia symptoms

It’s important to note that while aging may be a top risk factor for dementia, the condition is not in and of itself a normal part of the aging process. Although forgetfulness is common with aging, there are certain symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease to be aware of.

Alzheimer’s disease typically affects short-term memory. It’s often accompanied by two important warning signs that could indicate early stages of the disease.

Changes in functioning

This is perhaps the most critical indicator. For instance, someone who has always been very responsible at paying bills suddenly missing payments, or someone who now gets lost when driving to the neighborhood grocery store. 

Apathy or anxiety

Another sign to watch for is disinterest in activities that used to be a regular part of life. This may include withdrawing from social or religious groups or no longer participating in activities like going to grandchildren’s sporting events or working out. You also might notice a change in mood or increased levels of anxiety. 

It’s essential to note that loved ones (or those in regular contact) may notice these symptoms more so than the affected individual, who may dismiss them as just part of the normal aging process. Alternatively, the affected individual may rationalize these signs by saying something like, “This is happening to all my friends.”

A loved one may need to coordinate a physician evaluation and accompany the person experiencing symptoms to their appointment. When we first evaluate for memory loss, we want someone close to the patient with them to help establish a timeline and report observations.

Can dementia be cured? 

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia. But it’s still critical for people showing signs to get evaluated and diagnosed as soon as possible. There are several tests that can help determine the type and severity of Alzheimer’s, if it is indeed Alzheimer’s, or if it’s another condition altogether—for example, a blood flow issue in the brain.

From there, you and your doctor can work on a care plan. If you’re facing an Alzheimer’s dementia diagnosis, there are therapies that can slow the disease and mental decline associated with it, empowering you or your loved one to continue enjoying a higher quality of life.

These therapies include a new and promising class of medications called amyloid antibody medications. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2023, these are the first disease-modifying medications—meaning they can positively impact the course of the disease—for Alzheimer’s disease.

In fact, they represent the first new medications approved for addressing the condition in almost 20 years. However, these medications are only for those with mild forms of the disease, so the sooner it’s diagnosed, the sooner we can implement a treatment plan.

How to lower your risk of dementia

We hear a lot about rising cancer and heart disease rates, but the same is true for Alzheimer's and its dementia symptoms. According to the Alzheimer's Association, by 2060 the number of Americans with the disease will number almost 14 million—more than double the current number of adults living with the condition.

Moreover, the Alzheimer’s Association recently found that 16.6% of those 65 and older are experiencing a mild cognitive impairment. Research shows that about a third of those individuals will begin experiencing dementia in the next five years. 

Don’t let those numbers scare you, though. The good news is that up to 40% of cases can be prevented by managing controllable risk factors.

Just as early intervention is critical for treating dementia, starting to take steps early on in life (or at least adulthood) can help to lower your risk. Many controllable risk factors for dementia mirror those of heart and vascular disease, including:

If you are at high risk for dementia due to these health and lifestyle factors, talk to your doctor about steps you can take today to begin lowering your risk.

Alzheimer’s prevention: How to stay mentally sharp as you age

Many people take good care of their bodies to ward off any number of ailments, which is important for Alzheimer’s prevention as well. This includes regular exercise and eating a healthy diet that limits red meat, salt, sweets, alcohol and sugary drinks.

However, although it’s not a muscle, the brain also needs “exercise” to stay sharp and prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s from affecting it. This means staying socially connected with others and mentally active. Here are a few simple ways you can do just that:

  • Be proactive in reaching out to friends and family to grab a meal, go for a walk or just to chat.
  • Read, do puzzles, work on crosswords, or play games or a sport regularly.
  • Find and focus on something that interests you—join a club, a church ministry, a community service organization or another social organization.
  • Learn something new. Try learning a foreign language or picking up a new instrument like the ukulele.

With rates of dementia growing, it’s important to care for your brain health and take action at the earliest signs of a potential issue. If you’re concerned about changes in your or a loved one’s memory, don’t shrug it off as normal signs of aging. Talk to your doctor about what you’re experiencing, so you can get the support you need to age well.

Worried about dementia symptoms? Find a doctor near you.

About the Author

Cindy D. Marshall, MD, is a neuropsychiatrist and serves as the medical director of the AT&T Memory Center at Baylor University Medical Center. Dr. Marshall has a special interest in the treatment of memory, mood and behavioral problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

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