How to Recognize the First Signs of Dementia in a Family Member

Dementia is a common term for many of us. We have family, friends or know of others experiencing the numerous symptoms affecting memory loss. Roughly 5.6 million older adults (age 65+) have Dementia. It can be a challenging topic to discuss and we recognize that it is also not easy to know what is and isn’t Dementia.

Dementia, broadly, is the term that many use to describe the many symptoms affecting memory loss. In addition, grouped together with memory loss is thinking and social abilities diminishing and the interference it has on an older adult’s day-to-day life. It is important to note that it is not one specific disease – Dementia can be caused by several diseases (for example Alzheimer’s is the most common).

Before going any further, you need to note that yes, Dementia and memory loss are quite interlinked, but having memory loss has different causes. What that means is having memory loss alone doesn’t necessarily mean you have dementia but it can be a warning sign.

What You Should and Shouldn’t Do To Recognize Signs of Dementia

X Don’t Diagnose on Your Own

A quick and easy way to create conflict within your family and with your aging parent is to quickly self-diagnose and identify someone as having dementia. As stated earlier, memory loss is likely associated with dementia but it does not necessarily mean your aging loved one has it. What else can cause memory loss? Many internal and external forces can impact our memory including: stress, general mental health conditions, hormone disorders, and even medicines themselves. Quickly identifying someone as having dementia (correct or not) is often a sensitive topic to raise without appropriate preparation and consultation with a physician.

√ DO Remember the Following Key Tips

While you do not want to self-diagnose and create a negative stigmatism around the subject of dementia, you do want to pay attention, observe and when it is appropriate – discuss with a physician. Consider the following guidance as overarching principles:

  1. The early warning signs will be very hard to identify if you do not pay attention. Keep an active journal of what you observe to be able to see patterns over time. It will not always be identifiable immediately.
  2. The early warning signs will vary for dementia, however, there are some very common signs to look out for (which we share below).
  3. If your aging loved one displays several warning signs of dementia you should consider consulting with your physician and taking the SAGE exam.
  4. Your physician will use several different tests and assessments which may face resistance from your aging parent so your involvement and support will be critical.

10 Common Warning Signs of Dementia

The core common warning signs of dementia include the following:

  1. Being vague in everyday conversations
  2. Memory loss that affects day-to-day function
  3. Short term memory loss
  4. Difficulty performing everyday tasks and taking longer to do routine tasks
  5. Losing enthusiasm or interest in regular activities
  6. Difficulties in thinking or saying the right words
  7. Changes in personality or behavior
  8. Finding it difficult to follow instructions
  9. Finding it difficult to follow stories
  10. Increased emotional unpredictability.

If your aging loved one displays several of these common warning signs it is imperative to consult a physician and take the SAGE.

What is the SAGE: Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam?

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center developed the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (SAGE). The exam is self-administered and is specifically designed to identify early warning signs of memory, cognitive, or thinking impairments. It is not on its own a means to diagnose but it is a way to evaluate how your brain is working and monitor over time.

Photo - Ohio State University

SAGE measures cognitive function by assessing the following areas:

  • Orientation (month, date, year)
  • Language (verbal fluency and picture naming)
  • Reasoning and computation (abstraction and calculation)
  • Visuospatial (three-dimensional construction and clock drawing)
  • Executive (problem-solving)
  • Memory

In the exam, you will find questions such as:

  • How many nickels are in 60 cents?
  • Write down the names of 12 different animals

These questions, along with the other questions and evaluative criteria are intended to identify cognitive issues. This evaluation will help you if you feel concerned that you or your aging loved one has cognitive challenges. If you observe some of the common symptoms of dementia then taking this test can give you more information to determine if further evaluation is necessary.

The SAGE is taken at home and can be done on a regular basis to monitor for any potential decline. It will not lead to a diagnosis (i.e. do not attempt to self-diagnose using the SAGE). It will give you direction and a reference point to discuss with your physician.

Other Warning Signs of Dementia

You may observe other symptoms or what feels like warning signs of cognitive decline. This may be related to dementia. In addition to the common warning signs, you will also want to pay attention to the following physical and more overt symptoms:

Agitation. Mood changes that include confusion, irritability, depression, or anxiety are common in people with dementia. Your parent may become easily upset in different or new situations.Wandering. People with dementia sometimes get lost in familiar places or walk aimlessly. Dementia wandering can happen for many reasons, including fear, anxiety, boredom, or an urge to follow past routines.Picking. If an elderly relative picks at the air in front of them, or makes repetitive movements like opening and closing containers or switching the TV on and off, it could be a dementia symptom.
Sleep problems. Insomnia is a common problem in people with dementia. Your aging parent may have problems falling asleep, or they may wake up several times throughout the night.Eating problems. Your parent may forget to eat or drink. Medications to treat dementia symptoms can also affect your loved one’s appetite or interfere with food taste. Ensuring your loved one with dementia gets adequate fluids and nutrition can be a challenge.Incontinence. As dementia progresses, your loved one may lose bladder and bowel control. Changes in environment may also lead to accidents because someone with dementia may not be able to find the bathroom or get there in time.


Diagnosis should be left to a physician, but paying close attention to your loved one and keeping a record of the signs you notice will be time well spent. The more detailed information you can provide the more clarity professionals will have as they begin to determine the cause of the symptoms you have documented. And, hopefully, the more quickly a diagnosis can be reached.