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Dementia guide

Symptoms of dementia

Dementia is not a disease, but a collection of symptoms that result from damage to the brain. These symptoms can be caused by a number of conditions. On this page you can read about:

Symptoms specific to Alzheimer's disease

The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer's disease. Common symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia include:

  • memory loss – especially problems with memory for recent events, such as forgetting messages, remembering routes or names, and asking questions repetitively
  • increasing difficulties with tasks and activities that require organisation and planning
  • becoming confused in unfamiliar environments
  • difficulty finding the right words
  • difficulty with numbers and/or handling money in shops
  • changes in personality and mood
  • depression

Early symptoms of dementia (sometimes called cognitive impairment) are often mild and may get worse only very gradually. This means you might not notice if you have them, and family and friends may not notice them or take them seriously for some time.

In dementia, the brain becomes more damaged and works less well over time. The symptoms of dementia tend to change and become more severe.

For this reason, it's important to talk to your GP sooner rather than later if you are worried about memory problems.

The speed at which symptoms get worse, and the way that symptoms develop, depends on what's causing the dementia, as well as overall health. This means that the symptoms and experience of dementia can vary greatly from person to person.

Some people may also have more than one condition – for example, they may have Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia at the same time.

While dementia has many symptoms that are similar whatever the cause, the different forms of dementia do have some particular symptoms.

Symptoms specific to vascular dementia

The symptoms of vascular dementia can sometimes develop suddenly and quickly get worse, although they can also develop gradually over many months or years.

People with vascular dementia may also experience stroke-like symptoms, including muscle weakness or paralysis on one side of their body.

Read more about vascular dementia.

Symptoms specific to dementia with Lewy bodies

Dementia with Lewy bodies has many of the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and people with the condition typically also experience:

  • periods of being alert or drowsy, or fluctuating levels of confusion 
  • visual hallucinations
  • becoming slower in their physical movements

Read more about dementia with Lewy bodies.

Symptoms specific to frontotemporal dementia

Early symptoms of frontotemporal dementia typically include changes in emotion, personality and behaviour. For example, someone with this type of dementia may become less sensitive to other people’s emotions, perhaps making them seem cold and unfeeling.

They may also lose some of their inhibitions, leading to behaviour that is out of character, such as making tactless or inappropriate comments.

Some people with frontotemporal dementia also have language problems. This may include not speaking, speaking less than usual or having problems finding the right words.

Read more about frontotemporal dementia.

Symptoms in the later stages of dementia

As dementia progresses, memory loss and difficulties with communication often become very severe. In the later stages, the person is likely to neglect their own health and require constant care and attention.

Memory symptoms in later dementia

People with advanced dementia may not recognise close family and friends, they may not remember where they live or know where they are. They may find it impossible to understand simple pieces of information, carry out basic tasks or follow instructions.

Communication problems in later dementia

It's common for people with dementia to have increasing difficulty speaking and they may eventually lose the ability to speak altogether. It's important to keep trying to communicate with them and to recognise and use other, non-verbal means of communication, such as expression, touch and gestures.

Read more about communication problems in dementia.

Problems with mobility in later dementia

Many people with dementia gradually become less able to move about unaided and may appear increasingly clumsy when carrying out everyday tasks. Some people may eventually be unable to walk and may become bedbound.

Read more about mobility problems in dementia.

Incontinence in later dementia

Bladder incontinence is common in the later stages of dementia and some people will also experience bowel incontinence.

Eating, appetite and weight loss in later dementia

Loss of appetite and weight loss are common in the later stages of dementia. It's important that people with dementia get help at mealtimes to ensure they eat enough.

Many people have trouble eating or swallowing and this can lead to choking, chest infections and other problems.  

Read more about eating and nutrition.

Page last reviewed: 17/06/2015

Next review due: 17/06/2017

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Media last reviewed: 21/10/2013

Next review due: 21/10/2015