• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

Recognizing early signs of dementia

Dementia is the umbrella term for several diseases, including Alzheimer's. More than 5 million Americans have dementia. (KABC)
May 12, 2014 12:00:00 AM PDT
Dementia is the umbrella term for several diseases, including Alzheimer's. More than 5 million Americans have dementia.

Dementia is often associated with memory loss, but neurologist Dr. Vincent Fortanasce says personality change is usually the first sign. Social dis-inhibition can be a result of damage to the brain's frontal lobes.

"Those fibers start to get disconnected, and we become quick to anger," said Fortanasce. "We begin to say things that we really don't mean. And we also start doing activity which is inappropriate."

Dr. Fortanasce says just having a conversation with a person would not be enough to determine if a person has dementia.

While family members may believe callous or tactless behavior might be a reflection of a loved one's true self, experts say absolutely not.

"The person's previous personality doesn't necessarily come out when they become demented. In fact, just the opposite at times," said Fortanasce.

So is dementia a normal part of aging? Dr. Fortanesce says people can take steps to prevent it. He says chronic stress can shrink a key region of the brain. And lack of sleep, due to conditions such as sleep apnea, also deprives the brain of critical levels of oxygen.

"These are the individuals who slowly begin to lose their memory," said Fortanasce.

Besides a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fatty fish, Dr. Fortanasce recommends people engage in brain activities he calls "neurobics."

There are also mental challenges like learning a new language or doing a crossword puzzle. And, he says, look for new ways to experience your everyday environment.