Normal aging vs dementia: How to tell the difference

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Normal aging vs dementia: How to tell the difference

You did it again.  You forgot the name of a person you were introduced to just last week and the struggle to find the right words is becoming more noticeable.  Trying to recall certain dates or details from the past is not as easy when you were younger. Have you ever wondered, “Is this the beginning of dementia?”

As you go through life, a for sure phenomena will be aging.  Besides gray or thinning hair and wrinkles, changes in memory are bound to occur. Learning new tasks or retaining information becomes more difficult. Misplacing important items such as car keys or glasses is now a new norm.

Forgetfulness is common with age.  But, how do you know if your brief memory lapses are simply a part of normal aging or the result of dementia?

Dementia is not a normal part of aging

Almost 40 percent of people over the age of 65 experience some form of memory loss. Unless it is the cause of an underlying medical condition, then it is referred to as “age-associated memory impairment,” which is considered a part of normal aging.  The primary difference between normal aging and dementia is that mild forgetfulness does not significantly impact a person’s life, while dementia can have permanent, debilitating effects.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a broad term referring to serious memory problems that can affect cognitive abilities like reasoning or language. The memory problem is sometimes caused by Alzheimer’s disease or can be the result of another age-related condition such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease.  Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases.

It is not unusual for someone with dementia to deteriorate over time until they are no longer able to complete common, everyday tasks. For instance, they may no longer be able to drive, work, clean their home, or pay bills. Getting lost in familiar places, forgetting to turn off the stove or struggling to remember recent conversations with family members is becoming more commonplace. While dementia can be age-related and typically occurs in older adults, it is not an inevitable result of aging and many older people will not develop it.

Here are examples of what might indicate dementia – this is not a diagnostic tool and anyone who exhibits these behaviors, needs to be evaluated by healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis:

·       Unable to recall details of recent events or conversations

·       Unable to recognize or know the names of family members

·       Forgetting things or events more frequently

·       Frequent pauses and substitutions when finding words

·       Family or friends are worried about your memory

·       Lack of personal care, such as grooming and hygiene

·       Inability to focus and pay attention

·       Difficulty controlling moods

·       Changes in visual perception

What does normal aging look like?

Age-associated memory impairment takes on a different look.  Here are some common examples most likely indicating a person is experiencing normal aging:

·      Not being able to remember details of a conversation or event that took place a year ago

·      Not being able to remember the name of an acquaintance

·      Forgetting things and events occasionally

·      Occasionally having difficulty finding words

·      You are worried about your memory but your family and friends are not

How to handle normal memory-related aging

Anyone who is concerned about their memory should discuss this with their doctor. They can do an evaluation to alleviate any worries advising you on what to be aware of. 

In the meantime, here are tips for coping with normal age-related difficulties:

·      Keep a routine

·      Organize information by writing down details

·      Put items in the same spot such as always putting your keys in the same place by the door

·      Repeat information – always repeat a person’s name the first time you meet them

·      Run through the alphabet in your head to help you remember a word

·      Make associations such as if meeting a guy by the name of “Harry” for the first time and he has a headful of hair, there you go

·      Involve our senses such as visualization

·      Teach others or tell them stories

For more information on stalling memory loss as you age, click here