Patricia Chaney

How to Recognize Early Stages of Dementia in the Workplace

As the overall U.S. population ages and people remain in the workforce longer, employers are likely to see more age-related health issues pop up at work. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there will continue to be large increases in the number of people over age 65 — and even over age 75 — who continue working full or part time.

Among age-related health issues, one crucial concern for older adults is maintaining cognitive ability. But being able to recognize the early stages of dementia and offer support can help maintain productivity and manage costs while protecting your employees’ quality of life.

Understanding Dementia

Dementia is a broad term encompassing a disease that leads to impaired mental processing. It mostly affects people over age 65, and the risk rises with age. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common and possibly best-known type of dementia. Vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke, is the second most common type.

Recognizing the early stages of dementia in the workplace can be tricky. Symptoms usually come on gradually and are evidenced by small changes in behavior or ability to complete tasks at work. The Alzheimer’s Association notes some early signs to watch for, including:

  • Forgetfulness that interferes with job activities. It’s common for all of us to forget a meeting or miss a deadline every now and then. But someone with early dementia may be more likely to forget information they just learned or rely more and more on memory aids. They may also ask you to repeat information more frequently.
  • Trouble completing tasks. Difficulty with numbers or directions is a common early sign. Employees with dementia may get lost on the way to work or on the way to a common sales call.
  • Trouble with conversation. They may get confused during conversations with co-workers or during meetings and experience difficulty absorbing what’s being discussed.
  • Impaired decision-making. Having trouble processing information to make a decision, taking longer than normal to come to a decision or making poor choices repeatedly are early indications of dementia.
  • Mood changes. Early dementia can lead to increased feelings of anger, suspicion, anxiety and depression.

These are all signs that an employee should be seen by a doctor, but suggesting that they do so may not be easy. Some of the above signals could land an employee in a performance-management meeting with managers or human resources, though, where the suggestion to get a checkup might be better received.

Prevention and Support Tips for the Office

The exact causes of dementia aren’t fully understood, so doctors and researchers don’t have a clear prevention strategy. That said, they have uncovered some factors that increase a person’s risk for the disease, as well as some tips for how to improve cognitive skills.

The best thing an employer can do for brain health is to support an overall healthy workplace. Target younger employees in wellness programs as well to help prevent dementia later in life.

Research in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that some lifestyle factors that may lower a person’s risk for dementia. These include:

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Because heart health and brain health are related, encouraging employees to take care of their hearts through diet and exercise as well as managing chronic conditions will help keep their cognitive skills stronger for longer. Social isolation, midlife hearing loss and low levels of education are also risk factors for dementia. This means that encouraging office gatherings, providing a work-life balance, offering health screenings and creating opportunities for job development or continued learning may also have protective benefits.

Dementia is a serious risk for many people as they age, and you won’t be able to prevent all cases. But fostering a work culture focused on wellness and engagement is one step toward supporting the mental health of all your workers, now and in the future.

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