What are the warning signs of dementia?

An older man working at his desk.

The term ‘dementia’ describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. Dementia affects a person’s memory, behaviour, and ability to clearly think and perform tasks, making everyday life difficult.

Most prevalent in people aged 65 years and over, the condition typically affects more women than men. People in their 30s, 40s and 50s can, however, develop younger onset dementia.

Early warning signs of dementia

Early warning signs of dementia can be subtle and may not be immediately obvious, making it harder to care for the person. Dementia warning signs may include:

  • Memory problems, particularly remembering recent events (for eg. forgetting appointments altogether or forgetting them more often than usual)
  • Increasing confusion (eg. confusion about where a person is or difficulty finding their way back)
  • Reduced concentration (taking longer to finish something that was easy before, or getting distracted too often)
  • Personality or behaviour changes (rapid mood changes for no apparent reason)
  • Apathy and withdrawal or depression (getting tired of activities/social engagements the person previously found engaging)
  • Loss of ability to do everyday tasks (difficulty cooking a meal the person had previously found to be easy).

Types of dementia and symptoms

There are many types of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, Vascular dementia, Lewy body disease and Fronto Temporal Dementia (FTD). Each type of dementia can present with different symptoms.

Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. It damages the brain, impairing memory, thinking and behaviour.

Symptoms can vary and may include:

  • Frequent loss of memory (especially with recent events)
  • Disinterest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Taking more time to do the same, routine task
  • Difficulty answering questions or following instructions.

Vascular dementia

Vascular dementia is caused by chronic reduced blood flow to the brain, usually as a result of a stroke or series of strokes. There are three types of Vascular dementia. These are Multi-infarct dementia, Strategic infarct dementia and Subcortical vascular dementia.

Symptoms may include:

  • Severe depression, mood swings and epilepsy
  • Lethargy Difficulty walking
  • Inability to regulate emotions
  • Inability to control bladder function
  • Some medications may be prescribed to support secondary symptoms such as trouble sleeping or depression.

Lewy body disease

Lewy body disease is similar to Alzheimer’s disease and is more common amongst men.

Symptoms may include:

  • Poor sleep Hallucinations
  • Fainting Slow movement or tremors
  • Difficulty with understanding, thinking, memory and judgement.

Fronto Temporal Dementia (FTD)

FTD is caused by brain disease but its precise cause is unknown (except in familial FTD which is caused by a genetic mutation). Almost a third of people with FTD have a family history of dementia.

Symptoms may include:

  • Loss of empathy Inability to regulate behaviour in everyday social situations
  • Difficulty in judgement
  • Unexpected changes to eating habits
  • Inability to perform day-to-day tasks

For more information on symptoms of different types of dementia, visit Dementia Australia.

It is important that people who experience early warning signs of dementia, raise their concerns with their doctor as soon as possible.


Dementia is not one single condition and there are over 100 diseases which may cause different types of dementia. You can’t control some risk factors of dementia (such as your age, sex, gender, and family history), but you can reduce your risk of developing dementia by eating a balanced diet, staying mentally and physically active, not smoking, not drinking excessively, managing a healthy weight and making other healthy lifestyle choices.

Dementia can only be diagnosed by a qualified health practitioner such as your GP.

A GP will conduct a series of medical and psychological tests to identify the condition which may be causing your symptoms. These tests or assessments may include:

  • Obtaining a comprehensive medical history (including a review of your family history)
  • A thorough physical and neurological examination
  • Cognitive and neuropsychological tests
  • Blood and urine tests
  • CT, ECG, MRI or chest x-rays

If a dementia diagnosis is confirmed, help is available in the form of therapies, medications and support services, depending on the type of dementia a person has. These may help reduce symptoms but currently, most forms of dementia cannot be prevented or cured.

The stages and symptoms of dementia will vary from person to person, depending on the type of dementia they have and other factors. The three primary phases are:

  • Early dementia
  • Moderate dementia
  • Advanced dementia.

In the early stages of dementia, a person may struggle to find the right words or mix up the order of words while speaking. As their dementia progresses, they may lose track of what they were saying mid-sentence or forget your name and the names of others close to them. With advanced dementia, a person may forget to eat or not remember how to cook properly.

Dementia can progress very quickly and worsen over a few months or develop slowly over a number of years.

The length of time that a person with dementia lives can vary depending on when they are diagnosed, the type of dementia they have and how fast the disease is progressing. This varies from person to person.

To ensure the person can live independently, live well and with dignity, it helps to put a plan in place for support they might need in the future.

Currently, there is no cure for dementia and people cannot recover from it. As the disease progresses, a person’s abilities will deteriorate.