The early signs of dementia

Woman looking into distance whilst thinking

According to the 2013 Well-being of the Singapore Elderly (WiSE) study, 1 in 10 persons in Singapore aged 60 years and above has dementia, which according to the WHO definition, is a “syndrome in which there is deterioration in memory, thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities”.

To suggest that someone with dementia “may” have memory loss, is misleading. Dementia is a condition in which people with dementia encounter problems with memory. But it is of course worth noting that the “symptoms of dementia are not limited to forgetfulness and memory loss“, as the author of this 2015 Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Commons article points out. The ability to plan and make decisions, as well as solve problems, are other cognitive difficulties faced by someone with dementia.

Recent research efforts offer relatively quicker ways for clinicians to diagnose dementia and identify individuals at risk for dementia. According to a recent study published in 2015, researchers have developed a brief questionnaire, known as the QDRS comprising 10 items, which can accurately identify if someone has very mild, mild, moderate, or severe dementia. And a 2014 study has found a time-efficient method for identifying those at risk for dementia — through their ability to track a moving target with a computer mouse which moves in the opposite direction to what they see on the screen. Those diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) (and who are at risk for dementia) made many more errors than the control group. A more recent study also points to the tendency for those with amyloid plaques associated with dementia to have walk at a slower pace compared to healthy peers.

But you’re concerned that you may be developing dementia. Or you’re concerned about someone you know being at risk for dementia…

So here are 3 questions to answer:

1. Have you noticed any of these early warning signs?

The local Health Promotion Board has a print-friendly fact sheet, while the local Alzheimer’s Disease Association offers a checklist and describes the stages of dementia. No? Move on to Question 2!

2. Are you aware that you have difficulties remembering things?

recent study which tracked over 2,000 individuals for 10 years reported that awareness of memory problems is a good clue as to whether they have dementia or not. In this study, those who were eventually diagnosed with dementia stopped being aware of their memory problems about 2.5 years before showing signs of dementia. So being aware that you have memory problems is actually a good thing. But read on…

3. How often do you have problems remembering things?

The US Alzheimer’s Association distinguishes behaviours which are characteristic of dementia from behaviours associated with healthy ageing in their list of early warning signs. Forgetting the names of things and/or the names of people is something that happens to most of us. Some of us experience the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon quite often in fact. We can also be prone to forgetting appointments. But we’re usually able to retrieve these words and/or names later on, and we typically realise that we missed an appointment at a later time.

But a 2014 study also found that those who reported a change (more difficulties) in their ability to remember things were much more likely to subsequently develop dementia. So if you’re concerned that you might have cognitive issues, you can take an online assessment — Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam or the SAGE test. But it’s also important that you consult with a medical professional if memory and thinking problems are a concern for you. 

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