Dementia: ‘Subtle’ changes in thinking and memory could show up 18 years before diagnosis


The fear of dementia looms large in the minds of many, but even those affected can prolong their quality of life with an early diagnosis. According to one study, cognitive deficits may show up as early as 18 years before diagnosis. If changes in a person’s thinking and memory are picked up promptly, the severity of their dementia symptoms could be delayed.

The findings emerged in 2015, from a study of 2,000 people who underwent a series of tests assessing their memory and thinking skills.

During a follow-up period of 18 tears, researchers established that scoring low on a cognitive test was associated with an 85 percent higher risk of future dementia.

These findings suggest that changes in memory and thinking could emerge decades before a formal diagnosis is made.

Doctor Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer’s Society, said at the time: “Dementia often causes changes in the brain years before the symptoms become apparent.

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“This study shows that there may be subtle indications of Alzheimer’s disease in thinking and memory as many as 18 years before a formal diagnosis could take place.

“This could mean there is a long window of opportunity for treatment in which we could one day halt or slow dementia.

“Although these tests cannot accurately predict who will develop dementia they would potentially be used to identify people at her risk.”

The findings present a strong case for getting even the slightest of changes in memory and thinking probed by a healthy care provider.


According to the NHS, early signs of dementia that affect thinking tend to include:

  • Slowness of thought
  • Difficulty planning
  • Trouble understanding
  • Problems with concentration.

Memory-specific symptoms, on the other hand, may include:

  • Asking questions repetitively
  • Regularly forgetting recent events, names and faces
  • Difficulty finding the right words
  • Becoming confused in unfamiliar environments.

It’s important to note that some degree of thinking and impairment should be expected as a result of ageing.

In fact, the Alzheimer’s Society states that “almost 40 percent of us will experience some form of memory loss after we turn 65 years old.

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It adds: “Even if we experience memory loss, chances are still unlikely that we have dementia.

“For the most part, our memory loss is mild enough that we can still live our day-to-day lives without interruption.”

In dementia, the loss of cognitive functioning is expected to intensify over time, with some cases unravelling more quickly than others.

The main distinction between mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and mild dementia is the involvement of more than one cognitive domain.

In 2015, research published in the journal of Mayo Clinic Proceedings probed the differences between both conditions.

It suggested that a major difference would be substantial interference with daily life, which is more evident in dementia than it is in MCI.

“The prognosis for MCI and mild dementia is an important motivation for diagnosis as in both (conditions), there is a heightened risk for further cognitive decline,” noted the study authors.

A doctor who suspects dementia will determine the best course of action based on physical examinations, laboratory tests and uncharacteristic changes in thinking.



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