When does forgetfulness become dementia?

Dementia rates are on the rise, but spotting early symptoms can be tricky. Abi Jackson asks the experts for advice

It can be difficult to recognise which changes are normal and which could indicate a problem

AS THE number of people being diagnosed with dementia continues to rise, so too does the need for greater awareness, care services and support – for both the person with dementia and their loved ones.

Because this is a condition that can significantly impact the whole family, which is touched upon in Channel 4's new three-part documentary series, Dementiaville, which started on Thursday, June 4 (the first episode's still on 'catch up' if you missed it).

Figures published by the Alzheimer's Society last year reported that more than 800,000 people in the UK have some form of the condition, the vast majority of whom are over 65 (in fact, around 1 in every 14 people aged 65 and above has dementia), and it's predicted these numbers will keep growing.

Getting appropriate support can make a world of difference for those living with dementia but spotting possible early warning signs can be very tricky. After all, everybody gets a bit forgetful from time to time, or goes through phases of being 'out of sorts' – so how do you know when these things are normal, or a symptom?

:: Memory loss

"It is common to experience changes in our memory as we get older, so it can be difficult to recognise which changes are normal and which could indicate a problem," says Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer's Research UK (

"While we all might draw a blank on someone's name from time to time, or forget where we put our keys every once in a while, repeated and worsening forgetfulness that interferes with daily life could be more of a cause for concern."

There are various ways this could occur – Dr Karen Harrison Dening, director of Admiral Nursing at Dementia UK (, says common examples might include losing items regularly, getting lost or disorientated in seemingly familiar places and repeating oneself frequently. People might also get confused or muddled when it comes to routine tasks, like preparing a meal, getting dressed or putting the rubbish out.

:: Personality changes

"Dementia affects everyone differently, and memory changes are not the only possible early sign of the condition. Some people might experience personality changes, such as persistent uncharacteristic anger or irritability, lack of drive or low mood," explains Dr Ridley.

Somebody might suddenly seem to lose interest in things they were previously very interested in. Personality changes could also include seeming more sensitive than usual, and getting frustrated or upset more easily. Dr Dening notes that mood swings can often occur too, so a person might seem quite "up and down", and they might not be able to follow conversations like they used to.

:: Making poor judgments

A report in the news earlier this month – about an 84-year-old woman with dementia who was repeatedly targeted by scammers and spent thousands of pounds on items that he didn't need – highlights how people with dementia might lose their ability to make sound judgments in certain circumstances, particularly financial ones, which can make them extremely vulnerable.

"This can result in poor financial decisions and the inability to manage a budget," notes Dr Ridley


:: The signs outlined above don't always indicate dementia, but it's a good idea to speak to your GP as soon as you have concerns.

"They will be able to determine whether there might be a need for more in-depth assessment by dementia specialists, and rule out other conditions that could be causing these problems," notes Dr Ridley.

:: Dementia UK's Admiral Nurses provide support and advice. Call their helpline on 0845 257 9406 or email


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