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Warning Signs of Dementia

Contributed by Eleanor McConnell, PhD, RN, GCNS-BC

A caregiver giving her husband his medicationDementia is not a specific disease but a group of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain. Serious memory loss that affects your ability to carry out everyday life activities such as driving a car, shopping, or handling money is a common symptom of dementia. Dementia may affect other parts of your thinking, such as your ability to solve problems or to use words properly. Depending on the type of dementia, these problems may develop slowly over months or years, or they may happen more suddenly.

Not every memory problem is a sign of something serious. It is common to forget or to lose things sometimes, or to make a mistake. Memory loss that begins suddenly or that gets in the way of your daily life may suggest a more serious problem.

Warning Signs

There are warning signs that should be shared with your health care team, such as:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again

  • Becoming lost in places you know well

  • Not being able to follow directions

  • Getting very confused about time, people and places

  • Not taking care of yourself - eating poorly, not bathing, or being unsafe

Brain affected by dementiaWarning signs alone do not mean you have dementia. However, they may indicate the need for further evaluation. Hearing and vision impairment, reactions to medications, depression, and other medical conditions may be mistaken for dementia. These should be ruled out before a diagnosis of dementia is made.


An exam by your health care provider can help identify whether changes in your memory and thinking are due to dementia or another problem. It can also help determine what treatment is best. After an evaluation, you can discuss appropriate treatment and support and get help with future planning. The exam may include:

  • Getting a history of your symptoms

  • Doing a review of all your medications

  • Performing a physical exam, including cardiovascular and neurological, vision and hearing

  • Administering objective cognitive testing, such as a brief memory test

  • Ordering lab tests such as blood tests and urinalysis

Sometimes your health care provider may want to order additional tests such as:

Your health care team wants to know about memory problems or other changes in your thinking and daily function that you or your loved ones have noticed. They can check out what is going on and determine whether it is due to dementia. Then they can help you find ways to handle these problems better. Are you or someone you care about having memory problems that concern you? If yes, talk with your health care team and share your concerns. They can help you.

Learn more

The Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center (NIH) offers information and publications for families, caregivers, and professionals on diagnosis, treatment, patient care, caregiver needs, long-term care, education and training, and research related to Alzheimer's disease. Staff members answer telephone, email, and written requests and make referrals to local and national resources. The ADEAR website provides free, online publications in English and Spanish; email alerts; an Alzheimer's disease clinical trials database; the Alzheimer's Disease Library database; and more.

Forgetfulness: Knowing When To Ask For Help (NIH) Many people worry about becoming forgetful. They think forgetfulness is the first sign of Alzheimer's disease. Over the past few years, scientists have learned a lot about memory and why some kinds of memory problems are serious but others are not.

Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center

P.O. Box 8250
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8250
1-800-438-4380 (toll-free)

ADEAR website

Updated/Reviewed: November 1, 2011