When people express their fears around aging, usually, memory loss shows up at the top of the list.
Which makes sense, considering a significant 40% of people aged 65+ have age-associated memory impairment.
In the US, that translates to about 16 million people.
But, only about 1% of them will progress to dementia each year.
Even still, loss of cognition is definitely not something anyone wants to experience.
Today, we bring you some insights that will help you tell the difference between normal aging and dementia, so you can stay on top of your cognitive health management as best you can.
First, let’s quickly cover what normal aging entails.
What is Normal Aging?
Normal aging is an aging process where your body changes over time. It’s a process that catches up to everyone.
It’s not a sudden change, but rather a gradual one that happens over several years.
Here’s a visual summary of the signs of normal aging, which range from eye trouble and hearing loss to memory loss and decreased agility.
As far as memory goes, you’ll notice certain changes in your memory power that weren’t there before.
For instance, you might not recall the names of distant relatives or, say, a movie easily. You might also notice that when you receive new information, you process it a bit slower than before.
While inconvenient, these changes aren’t considered major problems. And they’re very normal among older adults.
According to NCBI, aging and memory do have a relation, where some memory declines with aging, and some of it remains stable as you age.
Procedural memory, for example – which is when you learn how to do things like ride a bike – remains stable as you age.
Whereas, prospective memory – which is remembering to do something in the future, like taking your daily meds before bed – declines as you age.
Here are a few more examples in chart form:
Now that you have a clear understanding of normal aging, let’s dig into the details of dementia.
What’s Dementia and What Are the Symptoms?
Contrary to the pace of normal aging, dementia is a cognitive breakdown that can be very drastic and worsens with time.
It’s a progressive and disruptive disease that mainly affects your brain – where it causes loss of memory, language, problem-solving and thinking abilities that, sadly, interfere with your daily life activities.
Dementia is also an umbrella term for different types of brain disorders, the most common being Alzheimer’s Disease, which touches a major 60-80% of dementia patients.
The reason why dementia is so severe and progressive is there’s a major deterioration in your brain cells. And that damage (which is mostly permanent) prevents your brain cells from communicating with each other.
Which causes some pretty major symptoms, including:
- Difficulties with short-term memory
- Keeping track of objects, like a wallet or purse
- Having trouble remembering appointments and dates, like when bills are due
- Forgetting the names of close friends and relatives
- Not remembering to complete important work
It’s also a telltale sign when someone takes major pauses to gather thoughts when communicating.
Or, on the receiving end of it, when they’re having trouble following or joining a conversation.
Another early sign of Alzheimer’s to look out for is when there’s a significant change in someone’s mood and personality.
To help you or your loved ones manage some of these symptoms of dementia, which can manifest as premature memory loss and loss of cognition, read on.
How to help manage dementia
It goes without saying that the more you educate yourself about dementia and normal aging, the more you can manage it.
For instance, an imbalance in hormone levels, especially in females, can contribute to memory loss symptoms, which may or may not be related to dementia.
What’s more, thinking and memory problems that are caused by these conditions below can improve when they’re treated properly:
- Depression and stress
- Side effects of medicines
- Excessive intake of alcohol
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Thyroid related health issues
On top of that, you can take preventative measures to help curb the impact of Alzheimer’s.
Does it guarantee anything? Of course not.
Will it help? Yes, especially if you focus on the factors you can control, and use tactics that are backed by research (which, by the way, these Alzheimer’s prevention tips are).
Of course, if the loss of memory and cognition becomes so obvious and the signs more prominent, it’s certainly worth looking into the help that Alzheimer’s care facilities offer.
The assisted living homes and facilities – with staff members that are specifically trained to help people with dementia – help people who suffer from dementia lead a comfortable life.
Before getting to that stage, though, let’s walk through a few ways to distinguish between signs of normal aging vs. dementia.
3 Ways to Tell the Difference Between Normal Aging and Dementia
#1. The pace of change in your memory
In normal aging, the decline seems to be slower and more controlled. Memory loss related to normal aging is generally seen starting between 50-60 years of age.
In dementia, it’s more sudden and drastic. The impact is more disruptive and faster in the case of dementia, which results in exaggerated memory loss pretty quickly.
#2. The impact on your competency
One significant difference between normal aging and dementia is the effect it has on your competence and intelligence level.
In normal aging, even though the brain slows down over time, the general intelligence of the person is not severely affected.
That’s not the case with dementia, though. In dementia, the overall IQ of a person is negatively impacted.
This is the difference between forgetting the name of distant places and being slow to register thoughts (normal aging) and forgetting names you use frequently and getting confused easily especially with new information (dementia).
#3. The impact on how you function in daily life
Finally, a third way to spot the difference between memory loss from normal aging vs. dementia is in the way it impacts your daily life activities.
For example, in normal aging, you may not be able to quickly follow up after a conversation or you might get confused, but you can still remember and understand the topic of conversation.
Whereas, with dementia, you might completely forget the topic of conversation in the middle of the conversation, and ultimately, not be able to understand it, let alone participate in it.
Not being able to converse in your everyday life can be super frustrating, right?
Add other dementia symptoms, like not being able to focus on one particular thing and having multiple mood swings, and the situation compounds even more.
It can even present a dangerous situation, like if you forget where you live or how to get home (dementia), which is a bit more severe than having problems recalling the name of a place you visited a few years back (normal aging).
It’s important to understand the differences between normal aging and dementia, not to scare or depress you, but to help you manage your – and your loved ones’ – cognitive health.
Understanding the difference between normal aging vs. dementia helps you prevent and manage your cognitive health
Memory loss can feel like a massive disability to a person who’s used to functioning at a certain speed with a certain level of competence.
So much so that it can greatly affect their mental health.
Knowing the difference between normal aging and dementia can be considered the first, and one of the most important, steps in dealing with dementia effectively.
To sum up the differences between aging and dementia, here’s a helpful table:
In the case that you do spot signs of dementia, seeking help from appropriate entities, like memory care facilities or assisted living facilities that provide memory care, is so vital. If the intervention is given at the right time, you can deal with dementia and Alzheimer’s in the best ways possible.
This article was co-authored by Holly, a seasoned writer who loves to create content related to aging issues and everything to do with senior living. She is a frequent contributor to many top online publications including Assisted Living Near Me, where she creates content that is specific to assisted living for older adults, as well as SeniorLivingFacilities.net, where she writes about common issues affecting senior citizens and provides senior living advice.