A list of dementia symptoms may include factors like decreased focus, lack of motivation, or decreased memory. Suffering from these symptoms doesn't always point to dementia. In fact, many dementia symptoms can be a completely normal part of aging, or can be signs of other afflictions like depression. In understanding dementia, one of the most important first steps is learning what distinguishes regular cognitive changes from dementia.

Most people experience mild cognitive changes and memory loss as they begin to move into their 50s. One of the clearest indicators of dementia is the speed of progression. Regular mental decline associated with aging is usually a slow and gradual loss of memory or attention span. Dementia, however, is often characterized by rapid, sudden, and severe changes in memory and cognitive ability.

For dementia symptoms that overlap with normal aging-related cognitive changes, there are distinguishing factors that can help understand whether or not these are regular changes. These can include:

  • Speech skills: Occasionally forgetting words is usually a sign of normal cognitive changes, while frequent pauses in speech, difficulty understanding speech, or tendency to call things by the wrong name can be a sign of dementia.
  • Memory loss: Those with regular aging-related memory loss will usually be able to recall specific instances in which their memory has failed, and may complain about increasing forgetfulness. Those with dementia-related memory loss will be unable to recall specific instances of memory loss, and may not acknowledge they have memory loss unless they are prompted or asked.
  • Short-term memory changes: Significant declines in short-term memory, such as an inability to remember recent conversations or events, are not a normal sign of aging and can indicate dementia.
  • Trouble with familiar tasks: Normal cognitive decline can cause trouble with directions or with remembering how to get somewhere, but getting lost in familiar, frequently visited locations or forgetting the way home could be signs of dementia.
  • Social skills: Loss of social skills isn't a normal part of aging - lack of interest in socializing, decreased ability to speak to others, or increased socially inappropriate behavior can be a sign of dementia.

Common Aging Symptoms

Regular cognitive changes associated with aging can include:

  • Slower recall speed
  • Decreased problem solving abilities
  • Slower reaction time
  • Decreased attention span
  • Decreased concentration
  • Decreased learning speed

Signs and symptoms of dementia can vary based on condition type and severity, but usually include both cognitive and psychological changes.

Cognitive Changes for Dementia Patients

  • Disorientation: A person with dementia becomes lost in familiar places, expresses confusion about the date or time of day, or has difficulty with directions.
  • Memory loss: Failure to recognize people and faces, in later stages even family members or close loved ones. Dementia patients can also experience decreases in short term memory, such as asking the same questions repeatedly or forgetting recent events and conversations.
  • Problems communicating: Loss of social skills and lack of interest in socializing, frequently forgetting words, or being unable to follow a conversation.
  • Difficulty with complex tasks: Difficulty planning or organizing events, paying bills, following recipes, writing letters, or traveling to new locations.
  • Decreased concentration: Difficulty staying focused and concentrating, decreased ability to learn and memorize new information.
  • Problems with coordination: Decreased motor functions and coordination, sometimes manifested as trembling, shaking, or difficulty walking.

Psychological Changes for Dementia Patients

  • Changes in mood: Frequent mood swings, increased sensitivity to change, and increased anxiety and agitation.
  • Personality changes: Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities and sometimes completely changed personality and behaviors.
  • Hallucinations or paranoia: In later stages of dementia, sufferers may believe that even close friends or family are dangerous or "out to get them".
  • Decreased reasoning skills: Neglecting safety, personal hygiene, exercise, or nutrition. May display decreased judgement skills involving money, like careless purchases or giving away large sums of money.
  • Socially inappropriate behavior: Making rude or explicit sexual comments publicly or to strangers.