Over the years I have seen many articles on how to spot signs of dementia in the elderly.  I’ve probably even written a few of those articles.  As an attorney with a focus on elder law and estate planning, the topic of dementia comes up often in my practice.

These articles discuss the obvious signs, such as forgetting things.  Not remembering where you put your car keys is one thing.  Not remembering what those keys are used for is something else.  Not remembering what you had for breakfast yesterday is ok.  Not remembering if you had breakfast is probably not ok.

Other less obvious signs have to do with things other than short term memory loss. These include changes in mood or behavior.  Someone who was an avid reader all of a sudden has no interest in books.  Or someone who normally always had a smile on his face now always has a scowl.  Worse, that person is now constantly complaining or using profanity when he never used to curse or complain.

Even changes in eating habits could be a sign.  Foods that she loved and has eaten for years, she now says she hates and won’t touch.  Sometimes she may even go as far as spitting the food out in public – something that she would never have done a few years ago.

Age can also be a factor in determining that your loved one has dementia.  If a person is showing some of these signs at age 70, many family members would think these are early signs of dementia.  My brother used to say that people demonstrating these signs at age 90 are “just senile” because that’s just what happens when you get that old.  For some people, that may be true.  Dementia is more of a long-term disease and usually starts to manifest itself when a person is in his 70s or 80s, not 90s.

But be careful.  Dementia is not the only disease that causes these symptoms, and that’s at any age.  Something as simple as a urinary tract infection (UTI) can trigger many of these symptoms.  Unfortunately, if not treated early enough, the symptoms can become permanent and the mental deterioration can continue even after the infection has been cured with antibiotics.

Another disease that causes symptoms similar to those of dementia is a thyroid imbalance.  In more severe cases or cases left untreated, patients can hallucinate and revert to earlier times or even childhood.  These episodes have been mistakenly confused with the later stages of dementia.  Again, early diagnosis and treatment is critical.

A third disease is cancer.  Oftentimes cancer is a quiet disease that doesn’t manifest in any symptoms – it depends on the type of cancer.  Sometimes you may feel lumps or discomfort, and hopefully you would see your physician.  Other times it’s quietly destroying internal organs without you ever knowing.  But then it spreads into the brain and your loved one starts to exhibit signs of what you think is dementia.

It’s at this point that other factors come into play.  What is the age of the person with the disease?  What would be the outcome of aggressive treatment?  Does the person have a Living Will and what does it say?  Every situation is different and unique.  As I tell my clients, I went to law school, not medical school.  If your loved one is exhibiting any of the symptoms typically associated with dementia, please see a doctor.  I would start with an internist and then go to a neurologist.  An early diagnosis could mean an early, and favorable, outcome.