The Truth About Aging and Dementia
As we age, our brains change, but Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are not an inevitable part of aging. In fact, up to 40% of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed. It helps to understand what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to brain health.
Normal brain aging may mean slower processing speeds and more trouble multitasking, but routine memory, skills, and knowledge are stable and may even improve with age. It’s normal to occasionally forget recent events such as where you put your keys or the name of the person you just met.
In the United States, 6.2 million people age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. People with dementia have symptoms of cognitive decline that interfere with daily life—including disruptions in language, memory, attention, recognition, problem solving, and decision-making.
The differences between normal aging and dementia
If you are experiencing difficulties with memory, know that they may not be signs of dementia. It could be memory loss as a part of normal aging.
If you are concerned that you or someone you know has dementia, please talk to your doctor.
What is aging?
Aging is a natural process of our lives. As we age, we experience gradual changes to our brains and bodies. Some of these changes affect our physical and mental abilities, and may increase our risk of disease.
Each one of us experiences aging differently. The extent of how we experience changes due to aging, and the point in our lives when they start becoming more noticeable, varies from person to person.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each person should have the ability to live a long and healthy life. This is considered healthy aging.
Memory, Forgetfulness, and Aging: What’s Normal and What’s Not?
Many older adults worry about their memory and other thinking abilities. For example, they might be concerned about taking longer than before to learn new things, or they may sometimes forget to pay a bill. These changes are usually signs of mild forgetfulness — often a normal part of aging — not serious memory problems.
What’s normal forgetfulness and what’s not?
What’s the difference between normal, age-related forgetfulness and a serious memory problem? It’s normal to forget things once in a while as we age, but serious memory problems make it hard to do everyday things like driving, using the phone, and finding your way home.
Talk with your doctor to determine whether memory and other cognitive problems, such as the ability to clearly think and learn, are normal and what may be causing them.
Signs that it might be time to talk to a doctor include:
Asking the same questions over and over again
Getting lost in places a person knows well
Having trouble following recipes or directions
Becoming more confused about time, people, and places
Not taking care of oneself —eating poorly, not bathing, or behaving unsafely
Normal Aging vs. Dementia
While some mild changes in cognition are considered a normal part of the aging process, . Normal age-related declines are subtle and mostly affect the speed of thinking and attentional control. In abnormal aging, declines in cognition are more severe and may include other thinking abilities, such as rapid forgetting or difficulties navigating, solving common problems, expressing oneself in conversation or behaving outside of social rules. Abnormal aging can also include the motor system resulting in excessive tripping, falls or tremor. Often it is difficult to determine exactly when a person should be concerned with cognitive changes they may be experiencing. Symptoms vary from person to person – what is normal for one person may not be normal for another. This contributes to the challenges clinicians face when determining whether what someone is experiencing is a significant dementia or not.
When Forgetfulness Is a Problem
If memory loss makes it hard for you to handle your daily tasks, that’s a sign you shouldn’t ignore. Are you forgetting things you only just heard? Asking the same question over and over again? Relying on lots of paper or electronic reminders just to get through the day? Talk to your doctor if you or your family notices that happening to you.
Signs of Dementia
Sometimes, there does come a point at which forgetfulness becomes more prominent and affects daily life. These symptoms can point to dementia. Some signs of a more serious problem, such as dementia, include:
Not being able to remember a recent conversation or event, or forgetting what’s happening while it’s happening
Being unable to learn or remember new information
Having significant language issues, such as struggling to have a conversation because of word-finding problems
Experiencing significant mood or personality changes such as depression, anxiety, or intense irritability
Appearing apathetic or withdrawn
Frequently pausing when talking
Forgetting family members’ names
Often getting lost and needing help finding one’s way
Experiencing significant declines in reaction time, which may affect driving, cooking, or the ability to recover from tripping and falling
The key to understanding what is normal aging and what could be dementia is evaluating how it affects daily life. For example, if your loved one is anxious because they can no longer manage their checkbook or monthly bills, you should speak with a physician.
Are you caring for someone with dementia? The Caregiver’s Complete Guide to Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care includes tips to help you accommodate your loved one’s changing needs.
The different levels of memory loss
Age-associated memory impairment
If you are experiencing difficulties with memory, but:
They are not noticeably disrupting your daily life,
They are not affecting your ability to complete tasks as you usually would,
You have no difficulty learning and remembering new things and
There’s no underlying medical condition that is causing your memory problems,
Then you have what’s known as age-associated memory impairment.
Age-associated memory impairment is considered to be a normal part of aging. It doesn’t mean you have dementia.
Though you may have difficulties remembering things on occasion, like where you left your keys, a password for a website or the name of a former classmate, these are not signs you have dementia. You may not remember things as quickly as you used to, but most of the time there is no cause for concern.
When to visit the doctor for memory loss
If you, a family member, or friend has problems remembering recent events or thinking clearly, talk with a doctor. He or she may suggest a thorough checkup to see what might be causing the symptoms. You may also wish to talk with your doctor about opportunities to participate in research on cognitive health and aging.
At your doctor visit, he or she can perform tests and assessments, which may include a brain scan, to help determine the source of memory problems. Your doctor may also recommend you see a neurologist, a doctor who specializes in treating diseases of the brain and nervous system.
Memory and other thinking problems have many possible causes, including depression, an infection, or medication side effects. Sometimes, the problem can be treated, and cognition improves. Other times, the problem is a brain disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which cannot be reversed.
Finding the cause of the problems is important for determining the best course of action. Once you know the cause, you can make the right treatment plan. People with memory problems should make a follow-up appointment to check their memory every six to 12 months. They can ask a family member, friend, or the doctor’s office to remind them if they’re worried they’ll forget.
Learn more about cognitive health and Alzheimer’s and related dementias.