Unusual Signs of Early Onset Dementia: What to Look Out For

Dementia is often thought of as a condition that only affects the elderly. However, there are actually several less common types of dementia that can occur in younger adults. Referred to as early onset dementia, symptoms tend to start between the ages of 30 to 65. 

Because the symptoms can be subtle at first, early-onset dementia is often overlooked or mistaken for other conditions. My aim with this blog is to discuss some of the more unusual signs of early-onset dementia that family members and friends should be aware of. Spotting these red flags early is key to getting proper treatment and support.

Personality Changes

One of the most common yet overlooked signs of early-onset dementia is a shift in personality and behavior. Friends and loved ones may sense that the person is “not quite themselves” lately. For example, someone who is normally outgoing might become uncharacteristically withdrawn and antisocial. Or a person once known for being cooperative suddenly struggles with anger outbursts.

In some cases, these personality and behavioral changes are the very first warning signs. It’s easy to assume that they are due to normal mood fluctuations, stress, or other factors. But progressive personality changes in younger adults should not be ignored, as they might indicate an underlying neurological disorder like early onset dementia. 

Impaired Judgment 

Many types of dementia affect parts of the brain responsible for judgment, reasoning, and decision-making. As a result, a person’s ability to logically work through problems or analyze situations can become compromised surprisingly early on. 

Friends and family might notice the person is making questionable or even risky choices they never would have made before. Their decision-making might seem disconnected from reality or lack common sense at times. This could include things like unsafe driving, financial recklessness, unusual online activity, or falling for scams.

Additionally, the person might struggle to follow conversations or understand instructions like they once could. These judgment and comprehension issues tend to become more noticeable over time as dementia progresses.

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Struggling at Work

Younger adults with undiagnosed early-onset dementia often have difficulties at work long before other more textbook symptoms appear. Coworkers and managers might detect subtle cognitive, memory and functional changes interfering with the person’s job performance. 

For example, someone who has always been highly organized and competent might suddenly struggle with deadlines, completing tasks, recalling conversations, or learning new skills. Work absences might start accumulating as well due to health issues or stress.

In some cases, job loss ends up being an early red flag leading to an eventual dementia diagnosis. But keep in mind that depression, stress, brain injuries or other conditions could also cause similar issues at work.

Visuospatial Disorientation  

Many people associate dementia mainly with memory loss. But another key feature is visuospatial disorientation - losing one’s sense of direction and location. This can be one of the more unusual early symptoms of certain types of dementia like Lewy body or posterior cortical atrophy.

A person with visuospatial disorientation might get lost in familiar places, struggle to mentally navigate spaces, misjudge distances or have trouble interpreting visual information. For example, they might frequently get lost while driving routine routes or have more fender benders. Stairs might pose an unexpected challenge. Reading maps and diagrams also becomes progressively harder over time as well.

Friends and loved ones should take note if the person seems increasingly lost or disoriented in spaces they once easily navigated. This likely signals a neurological condition requiring medical evaluation. 

Word-Finding Problems

Long pauses and awkward gaps mid-conversation could be an early indicator of dementia-related word-finding difficulties. The medical name for this is anomia, and it can have a subtle onset.

You might notice the person struggling to conjure up familiar words unexpectedly. Or they might describe an object rather than name it or swap words without realizing it. These word retrieval issues tend to worsen steadily as certain types of dementia damage language centers in the brain. 

Keep an eye out for uncharacteristic word substitutions, vague terminology, and descriptive gestures instead of specific words. The person might also repeat a limited vocabulary more often. These subtle language changes shouldn’t be dismissed, as they can signal early neurological issues.

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Apathy and Passivity 

Early onset dementia sometimes manifests first with emotional changes like apathy, lack of motivation, passivity, and social withdrawal. The person might abruptly lose interest in previously enjoyed hobbies and activities. Pleasurable or meaningful experiences no longer provide feelings of reward or fulfillment. 

This might be mistaken for depression initially, but neurological disorders can also dull motivation and emotions. Care partners might sense an overall indifference and disengagement worsens over time. Eventually, the loss of initiation makes daily tasks, self-care, and social connections more difficult without cues and encouragement.

 Rapid Forgetfulness

Memory lapses tend to be early and prominent symptoms in most varieties of early-onset dementia. However, people vary in terms of which types of memories get affected first. Subtle memory issues are often most noticeable with recent events and newly learned information.

For example, family members might observe the person struggling with recalling recent conversations, gathering their thoughts, or remembering appointments. Names, faces and key details tend to slip away rapidly. Or major news stories and dates don’t seem to stick with them as easily anymore.

These short-term memory failures usually become more frequent and severe as neurodegeneration spreads. Early evaluation is important because some underlying causes like autoimmune encephalitis are highly treatable if caught soon enough.

While some risk factors for Alzheimer’s are out of our control, such as genetics and age, researchers believe up to 40% of dementia may be preventable or delayed through lifestyle choices. Prioritizing cardiovascular health through regular exercise and diet is considered one of the best protective strategies. Staying socially and mentally active also strengthens brain connectivity and cognitive reserve. Avoidance of excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, repeated head injuries, and pollution are also recommended to reduce dementia risks. 

Although Alzheimer’s cannot be entirely prevented in all cases, focusing on modifiable lifestyle factors gives us some sense of control over this devastating illness. Putting prevention strategies in place, even in midlife, can potentially delay onset by up to 5 years. For those with Alzheimer’s genes or early symptoms, a proactive approach gives the best shot at limiting disease progression down the road. Our daily habits truly influence cognitive outcomes in the long run.

In closing, keep in mind that early-onset dementia causes progressive changes over months and years - not days. Sudden alterations in cognition, behavior, or function likely have other explanations like infections, medication issues, strokes, or mental health conditions. Regardless of age, seek medical attention promptly for any unexplained neurological changes that persist or worsen. Catching reversible and treatable causes early makes a tremendous difference.

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CareYaya is not a licensed home care agency, as defined in Gen. Stat. 131E-136(2) and does not make guarantees concerning the training, supervision or competence of the personnel referred hereunder. We refer private, high-quality caregivers to people with disabilities and older adults.