Red flag symptoms of dementia to look out for in family members on Christmas day

Christmas is supposed to be a time of joy where you tuck into an elaborate, festive spread in the circle of your nearest and dearest. But sadly, for thousands of people, it could be the first time they notice a significant and distressing change in their loved ones, according to Dr Tim Beanland, Head of Knowledge and Learning at Alzheimer’s Society and author of Mind Games.

The doctor told “Dementia is progressive, which means symptoms may be relatively mild at first, but they get worse over time. [It] can often be mistaken for and played down as simply old age – but it’s not a natural part of ageing. It also doesn’t just affect older people.”

One of the first signs that could ring alarm bells is a family member asking the same question over and over again. “It’s not called getting old, it’s called getting ill,” Dr Beanland said.

Furthermore, something as simple as forgetting to put the oven on for the Christmas turkey may be a dementia red flag, according to Professor Alistair Burns, NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Dementia and Older Peoples’ Mental Health. Other things to look out for include:

  • Confusion in a new environment – someone may become disoriented or confused when in a new place. A family holiday in a hotel can be a time when a person can become confused and may include trying to get into the wrong bedroom
  • Forgetting the names of loved ones to the extent that it causes embarrassment
  • Being at a relative’s house where the lay out is unusual could put a person’s memory and orientation to the test
  • Forgetting someone’s present – it might not be a very close relative but sometimes a niece or a nephew’s present can be forgotten as it slips from memory
  • Complex tasks such as cooking a big Christmas dinner for a large number of people. The sign could be something as obvious as forgetting to switch the oven on, forgetting to put the sprouts on or cooking things in the wrong order.

Professor Burns explained that Christmas visit to wider family and friends is an opportunity to spot these early warning signs.

He said: “The NHS is here to help, but diagnosis is the first big step and this is where people who know someone best can really make a difference in spotting the signs of dementia.

“The important thing is to look for changes in normal behaviour. I’m not a great cook so not being able to whizz up a Christmas dinner would be no surprise, but when someone who usually shines in the kitchen is forgetting to do the basics, that can be a vital clue.

“While it may be tempting to put forgetfulness down to one too many Christmas brandies, it could be a sign of something more serious so I would urge everyone to take a bit of extra time to consider if someone they know may need help.”

Dr Beanland added that symptoms can get worse over time and include the following:

  • Memory loss
  • Confusion and needing help with daily tasks
  • Problems with language and understanding
  • Changes in behaviour.

“If you spot these signs in yourself or a loved one, it is vital you seek support from a GP or a healthcare professional as soon as you’re able to,” the expert added.

While dementia diagnosis can be daunting, the doctor said “it’s better to know” as it can buy more time to plan for the future and unlock the door to treatment, care and support.  

Professor Burns’ advice about warning signs to spot at Christmas comes as the Alzheimer’s Society confirms that their support line receives an increase in calls in January after the Christmas gatherings.

Erika Aldridge, Head of Advice at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Calls to the Alzheimer’s Society Helpline increase in January with people seeking advice and support after the festive season, many of whom were worried about what could be signs of dementia.

“It can be difficult to know how to discuss concerns with a loved one, and there is no right or wrong way to approach this. If you do notice any changes in someone close to you that gives you cause for concern, such as repeated forgetfulness, confusion or behaviour that is out of character, our Helpline is here to offer you expert advice.”

For more information and support or to donate to 12 Days of Christmas appeal, you can also visit​ or call 0333 150 3456.

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