Behavioural And Psychological Changes Can Occur Before Memory Problems In Dementia

New research highlights a broad range of symptoms other than memory loss as early signs of dementia. The work is published in the Journal of Neurology on 14 January.

The US researchers followed a group of nearly 2,500 people with an average age of 77 between 2005 and 2013. The volunteers did not have a diagnosis of dementia at the beginning of the study, however 1,218 people did go on to develop the condition over the seven year period. In addition to the memory and thinking tests used to assess whether someone has dementia, the researchers also used ‘non-cognitive’ tests. These included self-assessment of a range of life-skills, including bill paying and shopping alone. Additionally, the researchers asked a close relative to assess the behavior and psychiatric symptoms of the volunteers, including anxiety, appetite changes, hallucinations and signs of depression.

The team found that those volunteers who went on to develop dementia, started to have greater difficulties with day to day tasks prior to a diagnosis of the condition. They also revealed that those who went on to develop dementia showed faster rates of decline in psychiatric symptoms, as interpreted by a close relative, such as hallucinations, delusions, appetite changes and depression. While these symptoms are typically associated with advanced Alzheimer’s, this study indicates that they might be observed early in the disease process. There was no difference in self-reported depression symptoms between those who developed dementia and those who did not.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“It is important to recognise that memory problems are not the only symptoms experienced by those living with dementia, and people can experience a whole raft of behavioral and psychological changes as the condition develops. This study suggests that difficulties with day to day tasks, along with mental health changes such as delusions, anxiety and depression, can occur before the onset of memory problems. The study does not delve deeper into the different forms of dementia and the behavioral and psychological changes associated with different diagnoses. It is challenging but important to understand how the underlying brain changes that cause dementia affect mental health in general, to improve the timeliness of diagnosis and help people maintain a good quality of life for longer.”