Whether it’s the runny nose that signals the beginning of a cold or an itchy rash that means your allergies have been activated, symptoms of an illness may be unpleasant and unwelcome—but they’re also an important warning sign from your body that something isn’t right. These kinds of red flags can be crucial when an early diagnosis may afford better opportunities for treatment and management, as with Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia.
Some early signs of dementia are more commonly known than others, such as confusion and memory loss. But other symptoms of cognitive decline may be surprising. Read on to find out about one symptom that manifests as an unusual change in your vision.
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“There is currently no ‘cure’ for dementia,” according to the National Health Service (NHS). “In fact, because dementia is caused by different diseases it is unlikely that there will be a single cure.”
Indeed, dementia isn’t one illness. Rather, it’s “a general term for a cluster of symptoms that include memory loss and difficulty with language, problem-solving, and other cognitive abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life,” explains Anne Sansevero, RN, a New York City based Aging Life Care Professional and geriatric nurse practitioner.
Not only can dementia be debilitating, the diseases—which include Alzheimer’s and Lewy body dementia—are on the rise. Alzheimer’s Disease International reports that over 55 million people worldwide lived with dementia in 2020. This number is expected to almost double every 20 years, eventually reaching 78 million in 2030, and 139 million by 2050.
Some of the early warning signs of dementia may include “progressive short term memory loss with inability to retain information, increased word finding difficulty, constantly losing things, becoming disoriented as to day, date, and time, challenges with problem solving, [and] getting confused during a familiar routine,” says Sansevero.
Another early symptom to look out for is a change in hygiene habits. “Bathing involves a lot of complex coordinated tasks such as undressing and multitasking with soap and water,” Sansevero explains. “This is challenging for those with dementia since their higher executive lobe functioning is often the first to be affected.” Sansevero adds that damage to the brain can cause a sensory aversion to water, as well as affect a person’s sense of temperature.
Other symptoms of dementia are easier to miss, because they’re not associated with confusion or changes in routine.
While you might not ordinarily associate vision with your cognitive function, your eyes can actually tell you a lot about brain health. And when a person’s perception of colors begins to change, this may be an early symptom of dementia.
“Many people with Alzheimer’s disease have visual problems, such as changes in color vision, and past studies have shown retinal and other changes in their eyes,” according to the National Institute on Aging. In addition, a change in color perception is associated with Alzheimer’s disease to such an extent that it may be used as a diagnostic tool. “Deficits in color vision and related retinal changes hold promise as early screening biomarkers in patients with Alzheimer’s disease,” reports an article published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS).
Why do changes in cognitive function affect the eyes? “People with dementia can also have visual difficulties because the dementia affects the parts of their brain that handle visual information coming from the eyes,” explains the Alzheimer’s Society. “This means they will have visual problems, but have healthy eyes.”
While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, people can do many things to potentially decrease their risk of developing a form of cognitive decline. “Adopting a healthy lifestyle, getting adequate and restful sleep, engaging in regular physical exercise, [and] staying socially connected” are some of these, says Sansevero. While prioritizing your wellness may seem like a given with regard to preventing illness and disease, some other measures might surprise you.
In addition to being a wildly popular activity with numerous health benefits, yoga may help decrease your risk of dementia. Good oral hygiene can affect your brain health, as well. Studies have shown that brushing and flossing daily may help prevent cognitive decline. Social connections—such as having friends in your life who will listen to you—has also been proven to benefit brain health.
If someone does exhibit symptoms of dementia, Sansevero advises them to “discuss with their primary medical doctor and get some basic cognitive testing and blood work done. Try some of the preventive measures listed above, and if the symptoms are not improving, get a referral to a brain health specialist.”