Health & Wellness

Normal aging vs. dementia – Things you should know about memory impairment and memory loss

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It is common to hear about an elderly person experiencing problems with his or her memory. Most of us shrug it off as a part of normal aging. However, down the line, you may find out that that particular individual developed dementia, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder. This leaves you with a pertinent question- what was it? Was it dementia all along or was the symptom part of healthy aging?

Normal aging vs. dementia
Image: Freepik

Confusing dementia with normal aging is common. The early symptoms of dementia such as distorted concentration, weakening memory, and disinterest in matters closely resemble with typical signs of aging. Also, most cases of dementia strike a person in their old age, making more room for confusion. 

Since it isn’t wise to neglect a progressive cognitive ailment for normal aging, let’s walk you through some essential points of contrast between the two:

Why do we normally mix aging with dementia?

Dementia is a severe cognitive ailment that can occur due to several reasons. The varying reasons account for different types of dementia with the most common one being Alzheimer’s disease.

Between 60-80% of the cases of dementia tend to be of Alzheimer’s disease. It is characterized by cognitive decline along the lines of weakening thinking skills, memory, and communication. In simple words, the psychiatric ailment is synonymous with the death of brain cells to an extent that a patient loses his ability to take care of himself independently.

What mixes dementia with aging, however, is that both occur during the same age bracket. About 1 in 10 people aged 65 or above have Alzheimer’s disease. In the US, Alzheimer’s is the fifth leading cause of death among senior folks.

Early onset dementia can also victimize an individual. However, only 5% of the total cases of dementia occur at a young age. In other words, dementia is mainly a disease that affects people in their old age.

Moreover, it shows early symptoms that mirror the typical signs of cognitive decline that surface with aging. It’s common to note such mild cognitive impairment (MCI) as a person climbs the age ladder.

Approximately, 15-20% of the individuals aged 65 or older experience MCI. These people show higher odds of developing dementia. The risks swell if a person notes significant memory problems. Subsequently, research goes on to say that 8 out of 10 people with amnestic MCI end up having Alzheimer’s.

How can we differentiate between healthy aging and dementia symptoms?

There’s a slim line between the signs of aging and dementia. For example, 40% of the people in their old age (65 or above) face memory issues. They find it hard to recall simple information snippets. Or, they may even forget where they put their reading glasses. So, how can a person tell if it’s age-related MCI or an early telltale sign of dementia?

One can tell the difference if an aging person’s memory problems start impacting his everyday life. That’s the point when warning bells ring, and the affected person needs to get in touch with a specialist.

Here are more ways to sketch a clearer line between the two conditions:

Problems related to memory and learning new things:

  • An aging individual might fail to recall information regarding an event from a year ago. However, a person with dementia is unable to remember details of a recent event.
  • An aging person finds it hard to recall an acquaintance’s name. On the flip side, a dementia patient may fail to remember a family member’s name. He may not even recognize his family members’ faces.
  • A person going up the age bracket can occasionally forget things or events. But, a dementia patient frequently forgets things and events.

Troubles in language and communication:

  • An older person may have to stress a lot to keep a conversation rolling. However, a person with dementia faces trouble in keeping up with a discussion.
  • Occasionally, a senior person can also find it hard to find the right words to express himself. On the other hand, a patient with the degenerative disorder frequently pauses while speaking, in an attempt to recall what he was saying and to find the words to communicate.
  • An aging person can lose some bits of a chat when distracted. But, a patient of early-stage dementia regularly loses track of conversations.

Issues with decision-making and planning:

  • An aging person can become slow in planning things. A patient with undiagnosed dementia, on the other hand, ends up getting very confused when planning. Such a patient also finds it challenging to follow the simple steps of his favorite recipe.
  • An elderly individual finds it onerous to juggle multiple tasks at the same time, particularly, when distracted. However, a patient faces severe concentration issues.
  • An older folk can make an occasional mistake or two when making decisions. However, a victim of dementia frequently makes errors when assessing risks or handling financial matters.

Other factors:

  • An aging person typically faces visual decline or develops visual problems such as cataracts. A dementia patient, however, experiences issues in interpreting visual information such as misjudging patterns or distances between stairs.
  • An aging person can sometimes feel low or anxious. On the flip side, a patient typically feels sad and frightened.

The effects of dementia on a person’s life are dramatic enough to show readable signs. The cognitive decline is not a minor irritation. However, it is enough to make a person feel helpless in navigating his way through the roads or making a phone call.

A diagnosis is essential even if the symptoms are not severe enough to be dementia but complicated enough to be more than just aging. In such an instance, a doctor may diagnose this as middle ground between aging and dementia, which is recognized as mild cognitive impairment.

Wrap up / the conclusion

It can be challenging to keep tabs on the cognitive decline, which is congruent with aging and the early development of dementia. However, it’s possible to note the differences with closer observation. Furthermore, Braintest review by DementiaTalk indicates that there are apps that can help people keep track of their mental impairment and point out when cognitive impairment is tipping out of balance.