Normal Aging or Something More?
Updated: May 4, 2022
It can be difficult to separate the normal aging process from the progressive and steep declines typical of Dementia. Examples of genuinely age-related changes are thinning and graying hair, sagging skin, and alterations in vision, hearing, and taste. Other changes, such as heart disease and certain types of memory loss, are not a normal part of aging.
The normal aging process may affect memory by changing the way the brain stores and retrieves information. While healthy aging does not affect long-term memory, it may affect short-term memory by making it difficult to remember such things as the name of a new acquaintance or misplacing keys or eyeglasses. Occasional word-recall difficulties, rather than frequent ones, are another indicator of healthy aging.
How people evaluate isolated events as one way to distinguish normal memory lapses from those caused by dementia. At one time or another, everybody loses a car in a parking lot. We chalk up those moments of frustration to the number of look-alike cars or having our thoughts elsewhere with normal forgetfulness. A person who has Dementia is sure someone has moved the car.
Name recall and word-finding are other ways to distinguish memory losses caused by the normal aging process from those resulting from Dementia. A person with occasional age-related memory difficulties might ask for a reminder or wait a moment for the right word to show up. A person with Dementia frequently has trouble finding and using the right word. To compensate, he or she may use either an awkward substitution or a description in place of the word. For example - a furry animal that purrs to replace the word “cat.” Further, there may be a noticeable decline in his or her capability to maintain a conversation. Clinicians use the term “impoverished “to describe the Dementia-related changes in language complexity and vocabulary.
The ability to use household items is another indicator of Dementia. Most people find it annoying or frustrating when upgrading a home appliance to one that is heavy in technology or with new features. The source of annoyance often stems from changes in vision or the reduction in dexterity that arthritis may cause. However, people who have Dementia no longer know how to use their familiar dishwasher or drier.
When considering whether a set of symptoms indicates Dementia or normal aging, one must evaluate whether the symptoms are a nuisance, problematic, or debilitating. This is best accomplished with the help of appropriate medical professionals and input from caregivers and loved ones.
Contributor: Janet Yagoda Shagam, Ph.D., is a freelance medical and science writer for the Dementia Society and the author of “An Unintended Journey: A Caregiver's Guide to Dementia.” The opinions expressed by contributing authors are not necessarily the opinions of the Dementia Society, Inc. We do not endorse nor guarantee products, comments, suggestions, links, or other forms of the content contained within blog posts that have been provided to us with permission, or otherwise. Dementia Society does not provide medical advice. Please consult your doctor.