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How Do I Know If My Mom or Dad Has Dementia?

Detecting signs and symptoms of dementia early can preserve family memories.

Detecting signs and symptoms of dementia early can preserve family memories.

Why Knowing the Signs Is Important

For over two years, my husband and I struggled with the increasingly difficult behavior of his parents Only after a traumatic emotional breakdown and the hospitalization of his mother did we finally learn that they both were suffering from dementia caused by Alzheimer's. We wished we had gotten help earlier.

Unfortunately, our story is not uncommon. Most people with dementia are not diagnosed until there is some sort of accident or hospitalization. By recognizing the early signs of dementia, you can often get better treatment.

  • About 30% of dementia is not Alzheimer's and may even be something that can be prevented and cured.
  • Alzheimer's dementia can't be cured, but early detection allows for treatment to perhaps delay the disease and to plan for the future.

Normal Aging vs. Signs of Dementia

Adapted from "The Alzheimer's Answer," by Marwan Sabbagh, M.D., 2008. pp. 24-34

ActivityNormal AgingSign of Early Dementia

Daily life activities like driving, using telephone, bill paying and shopping

No problems getting these tasks done as before.

gets confused or can't complete task without reminders or help

Personal care life dressing, grooming, bathing

No problems with continuing these tasks

May start dressing inappropriately or forget to do normal tasks


Sometimes forgets a word or name

Frequently can't remember a word, makes word substitues or misuses words

Complains of memory loss

Frequently complains or notices when they forget a word or name

Doesn't complain about memory loss or notice if they forget

Social Skills

Same as always

May start behaving differently towards other people, get depressed, or drop activites they did before

Memory for recent events

Remembers events and details

Can't remember details of events, or even event itself

Orientation in space and time

Doesn't get lost. Able to remember days, dates and times.

Impaired. Starts forgetting familiar routes. May have trouble knowing days, dates and time.

Learning New Things

Slower, but can learn new tasks or information

May be able to learn but can't retain information. Can't learn how to use a new appliance or T.V. remote.

Cognitive Testing

Performs well in all areas

One or more areas show impairment

My in-laws in Middle Stage Dementia.  Since social skills are often preserved longer than other skills, sometimes people with dementia can seem fine.

My in-laws in Middle Stage Dementia. Since social skills are often preserved longer than other skills, sometimes people with dementia can seem fine.

Dementia vs. Alzheimer's

What is the relationship between Dementia and Alzheimer's? Dementia is the symptom of memory loss, and Alzheimer's is the leading cause of dementia.

Between 60-70% of people diagnosed with dementia after age 65 are ultimately diagnosed as having Alzheimer's. Even though Alzheimer's is not reversible, there are treatments and lifestyle changes that can delay the disease. Recent developments in understanding and treating Alzheimer's suggest that if a person can be diagnosed in the stage of Mild Cognitive Impairment, which precedes Alzheimer's and other dementias, they can be treated to delay the disease.

When a parent stops taking good care of their bodies that can be a sign of dementia

When a parent stops taking good care of their bodies that can be a sign of dementia

Repairable Causes of Dementia

It is important to realize that Alzheimer's is not the only cause of dementia and some causes of memory impairment are reversible. Especially if the memory loss seems sudden, there is a good chance that something else should be suspected. Here are some of the other causes of dementia:

  • Dementia with Lewy Bodies: second most common kind of dementia and tends to progress quickly. People with this dementia tend to have problems moving and vivid hallucinations.
  • Vascular dementia: small strokes can cause dementia. This type does not necessarily progress and can even improve if treated.
  • Pick's Disease: a rare type of dementia caused by genetic mutations on the 17th chromosome, people with this type of dementia are often socially inappropriate with poor judgment.
  • Parkinson's Disease: along with the movement problems of this disease can come dementia.
  • Huntington's disease: a genetic disease associated with mutations on the 4th chromosome which causes early onset dementia in people 40s to 60s.
  • Alcohol and Drug overuse: sustained use of alcohol/ and or drug use can cause dementia.
  • Depression: mental illness, especially depression, can cause dementia. Dementia can also cause depression, so it is important for a doctor to distinguish cause and effect, but one clue is that with a person whose dementia is caused by depression, there will be an improvement in mental ability when depression is treated.
  • Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus: This is a treatable condition that affects some elderly people who show signs of balancing problems and bladder control problems along with memory loss.
  • Metabolic disorders: having low sodium, low blood sugar, or thyroid deficiency can cause dementia. All of these are treatable.
  • Brain Tumors: lesions in the brain can cause dementia and are one of the reasons a person needs a medical exam.
  • Infections: another important thing to rule out is dementia caused by illness and infections.
  • Medications: some medications which are prescribed or taken over-the-counter can cause memory problems, especially when they are taken in excess or in particular combinations. Check for this by bringing all medications and supplements with the patient to the doctor's exam.

Steps to Take

If your loved one shows some of these early signs of memory loss, have them see a medical doctor as soon as possible. Why? Only a doctor can:

  1. Fully screen someone to see if they have mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
  2. Determine the cause of the memory impairment.
  3. Give medicines, treatments, and advice on how to deal with your loved one's memory loss.
  4. Suggest medications that might slow down Alzheimer's.
  5. Give you information about help and support that is available in your community.

I speak from experience. Once we were able to get my in-laws treated with proper medical supervision, their lives and ours improved immensely. In another situation, my mother's apparent memory loss turned out to be a hearing problem. With hearing aids, her "dementia" completely disappeared.

Do you have a question about dementia, or would you like to share an experience that could help others? Please share in the comments below.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: Do people suffering from dementia become violent?

Answer: If an individual has become violent, they are probably entering a middle stage of dementia. My father-in-law became verbally violent and we believe he also acted violently toward my mother-in-law, who ended up in the hospital twice. It was not easy for us to determine whether what happened was an accident or not. If someone becomes violent, it can be very difficult for the family, but it is even more important to take action, especially if there is anyone who could get hurt.

Question: Could I ask my mom's doctor to run that test on her without her knowing?

Answer: I do not know whether that would be appropriate or allowed under the Hippa laws; however, if you have a concern about your mother's mental abilities, I think it can be appropriate to communicate that to the doctor by calling to talk with the doctor or nurse or making an appointment. The doctors are often able to do some simple testing as part of a regular exam and then can recommend further testing if they see an issue. You can also request to go with your mom to an appointment. What I would suggest is that you tell your mother that you know it is hard to remember everything the doctor is saying and so you are volunteering to go to write down what the doctor says (you can also volunteer to keep track of the questions she wants to ask) so that she can have that to refer to later. That can be a helpful way to become a part of the examination process and to get a sense of whether the doctor is aware of the memory problems you observe.


Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on July 07, 2018:

Hi Rose--At 74, you are probably still able to stay on your farm if you want but your kids and relative might be concerned about the next ten years or so. However, if you are healthy and enjoy living on your farm and have some people that can help you if you get in trouble or have health issues, I think you should probably stay on your farm as long as you can. However, I definitely think it would be a good idea for you to consult with a financial advisor and a real estate person to be sure that you are ready for the future financially and that you make the most you can when you do sell. If you have health issues, you really do need to think about whether you need to plan for what would happen if you can't take care of your farm. Blessings!

rose on July 05, 2018:

I took care of my husband for 4yrs alone. Now I take care of my small farm alone. My kids and legal relative are bugging me to sell.

I think they want cash not farm. I am 74 and educated. Am I seeing this clearly?

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on April 29, 2015:

So lad this was helpful! I spent many weeks researching this information before writing my series of articles on Alzheimer's. I wanted to provide all the information I wish we'd been able to find when we needed it.

Kelly Kline Burnett from Madison, Wisconsin on April 29, 2015:

Fantastic information. I was wondering about what signs to look for. We participated in the Alzheimer's Walk but sadly there was no pamphlet to explain the details you provided. Voted up! Keep up the great work!

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on April 28, 2015:

This is an informative hub and brings me much knowledge about this Disease. Thanks for sharing with us.

Dementia.... on February 11, 2013:

Great hub and well presented. Thanks for sharing.

Anthony J. Garcia from Waco, TX on August 22, 2012:

Hmm, this is something many American's don't think about. Diane Sawyer has currently been doing a mini-series on ABC World News about dealing with those tough questions and issues you have to deal with when parents are aging. I myself did some research on Alzheimer's in 6th grade when President Reagen passed away. Thanks for sharing these facts, I'll pass this along to my parents!

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 22, 2012:

DiCalderon, I have so much sympathy for you and your family. Information on Alzheimer's and dementia does help to cope with the disease.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 22, 2012:

EBuchanan, I think that having a relative with Alzheimer's makes you understand the complex feelings this disease causes in a family. So sorry you are having to experience this in your aunt, who is probably rather young for this disease.

DiCalderon on August 21, 2012:

Currently my family is going through this with my grandmother. Although it is very difficult, we try to just go along with what she says and answer her questions without getting mad or frustrated with her. Taking the quiz and reading through the chart of signs and symptoms helped me further understand what Dementia really is.

EBuchanan on August 21, 2012:

My Aunt has Alzheimer's and sometimes she gets mixed up with which sister is which and who has graduated and so forth. We all know there isn't anything we can do about it other than just play along and with the story. I like the scientific and personal side to your article.

sarahbyers from waco tx on August 20, 2012:

It is so interesting to see all the different types of dementia that actually exist. My dad's dad has dementia and my mother's sister has Alzheimers disease. Both can affect a family in large ways and I do agree that the most important thing to do is to get a medical experts help.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 19, 2012:

Thanks Mommiegee--I thought I knew a lot about dementia but I've learned so much more since I've been researching. I was not able to find good online resources when I was in the middle of trying to figure out what was going on with my relatives.

Mommiegee from Alabama on August 18, 2012:

This is a very helpful hub. Thank you so much for going into detail about the signs and symptoms. I even enjoyed the quiz. Thanks again.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 16, 2012:

Thanks toknowinfo!

toknowinfo on August 15, 2012:

Very well done hub. It is a good mixture of informative facts with your own personal experience, which is helpful to so many who read this. I know you have endured a lot as a caregiver and I hope writing this helped you deal with what you had to go through too. Rated up and useful and shared on twitter.

Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on August 13, 2012:

Thanks so much Seeker for adding your story. I think that knowing other people are going through this process is so helpful! It makes us realize that we are not alone.

Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on August 13, 2012:

What a fantastic hub and the thing I love the most about this, is that it's written by a family member who was involved with Alzheimer's. I think for many people this makes it much easier to relate to you and your hub rather than say one written by a doctor or nurse as the articles can seem distant and impersonal to people trying to find out more. If there is one thing I learned while looking after elderly people and their families, is that the personal touch means so much more to them than anything else.

I also look after my Dad who has heart disease and Parkinson's Disease. His memory is so bad at the moment and I'm always aware that with Parkinson's there is a risk of a couple of forms of dementia starting. Thankfully at the moment it is just memory and not anything more sinister.

An excellent hub with great information but also a wonderful personal touch that reaches out to people.