Early Warning Signs of Dementia and Its Effects on Vision

Sandra Burgess and her mother sitting together with text reading California 1975

Editor’s note: For Older American’s Month, Sandra Burgess shares her experiences with her mother’s onset of dementia.

Losing Memory Slowly

My mom began to lose her memory very slowly. So slowly, in fact, that it was not terribly noticeable nor was it enough of an issue to cause her or her family any concern. My mom would say she couldn’t think of a word or remember someone’s name. As forgetfulness worsened, she realized something was not the same and talked about her frustration. When a woman from the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association visited her and conducted some simple tests, such as having her draw a clock and repeat back a list of words, my mom asked if she could attend a support group for clients. I understand such groups now exist, but back then, my mom was told support groups were only for caregivers.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, affecting some fifty million worldwide. Dementia is not a disease; it is a broad term used to denote symptoms of memory impairments that severely disturb the quality of one’s daily life. Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia are diseases of the brain that result in loss of memory, reasoning skills, and thinking. In my mother’s case, she was informed that she didn’t have Alzheimer’s because when she forgot a word, memory pegging resulted in her remembering. For example, if she could not think of the word “ball” in a word list and the examiner gave a clue, such as, “It is round. It can be used with a bat,” my mom would then quickly say “ball.” With true Alzheimer’s, thoughts slip away never to be retrieved.

We never learned what led to my mom’s dementia, though the fact that she had diabetes, high blood pressure/high cholesterol, and a number of mini strokes (also called TIAs) could have been factors.

Early Warning Signs

  • Forgetting new information (important dates, events). This was very common with my mom, who would call to make a doctor’s appointment, repeat the information out loud, and not remember when she went to another room to write it down. Thinking her family would remember what she repeated, she would ask us and we hadn’t always been paying attention.
  • Performing familiar tasks takes longer, or cannot be completed without mistakes (writing checks, following a recipe, remembering how to drive to a familiar place)
  • Difficulty with where they are in time or place: Mom did not know the correct year, or where she was living when she was in a nursing home.
  • Spatial Relationships and Visual Images. Reading, determining distances, color, or contrast may be hard: Mom thought she was positioned to sit on a chair, and ended up on the floor.
  • Current problems with words when speaking or writing: it may be hard to participate in or to follow a conversation.
  • Misplace items and no longer have the capability to retrace their footsteps.
  • Changes in judgment or in making decisions: Individuals may begin to make poorer decisions in dealing with money, such as giving large amounts of money to scam artists. They may also pay less attention to their personal cleanliness.
  • Withdrawing from hobbies, work projects, and social activities
  • Changes in Mood or Personality: When they are in uncomfortable situations, they may easily get upset, fearful, anxious, befuddled, or suspicious.

As mentioned previously, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can cause changes in one’s vision that make everyday life much more difficult. Dementia is a brain disease and the brain works along with our eyes to interpret what we see. Coupled with dementia, many older adults experience vision loss from conditions such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, or retinal damage from diabetes.

Some Examples of Problems That May Occur

  • Mistakes interpreting what they see: the blue floor looks like the sea, or a coat hanging up appears to be a person
  • Problems identifying people by sight
  • Diminished visual field, so there is a loss of peripheral vision while looking straight ahead
  • Trouble seeing contrast between items and backgrounds
  • identifying colors: purple and blue for example
  • Poor depth perception
Learn more helpful tips on caring for someone with dementia.

Additional Resources

TIA (Transient Ischemic Attack)

How Alzheimer’s Disease Affects Vision and Perception

Tips for Caregivers on Reducing Visual Perception Difficulties in Individuals with Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s Association

ALZwell Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia Caregiver Support

Alzheimer’s Society (UK)

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