Dementia vs Normal Aging

Are you seeing some changes in an older family member? While the rate of dementia increases as people age, disruptions in memory and the ability to complete daily tasks shouldn’t be considered a normal consequence of aging

Dementia is more than memory loss. Dementia is defined as a permanent decline of a person's ability to think, reason and manage his own life.

When you are wondering about your family member’s well being, it’s helpful to know how our brains change as we age and contrast those changes with the symptoms of dementia.

An aging brain has certain characteristics:

  • Slower at retrieving information. We’ve all experienced those “tip of the tongue” moments where we can’t remember someone’s name or come up with a word that “sounds like” the word we want.
  • Slower to learn new information. Studies have shown that older people can learn the same information as a younger person putting lie to the old saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Older learners need more time to learn new tasks, more repetition and an environment that allows them to focus.
  • More difficulty filtering out distractions. I met with an audiologist recently who has experienced an upswing in boomers complaining of hearing loss. What she often finds is not hearing loss. She teaches them that their aging brains have trouble filtering distractions which means that they can’t easily filter out background noise to focus on the speaker.
Now let’s contrast normal brain aging with dementia:
  • Dementia sufferers cannot retrieve certain types of information because the brain cells that held that knowledge have died. For example as dementia progresses it is common for people to lose their vocabulary and have difficulty with every day tasks like cooking or balancing a check book.
  • Dementia sufferers cannot or have great difficulty learning new things. You will particularly see problems with short term memory where your family member can’t remember what he had for lunch, forgets conversations and tells repetitive stories.
  • Distracting, busy environments become very stressful for your family member with dementia. He becomes silent and withdrawn in social situations because he can’t keep up with the conversations. You end up leaving parties early or not going at all because it is so tiring and upsetting for your family member.
  • Other dementia symptoms you may notice:
  • Issues with personal hygiene, refusing to bathe, wearing same clothes over and over
  • Objects stored in strange places, milk in the closet, flashlight in the frig
  • Problems managing medications, not taking on them on time or taking too much
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities that the person used to enjoy
  • Increased confusion or agitation at the end of the day
  • If you see these signs in your family member, it’s important for him to be evaluated by a doctor. There are illnesses that can be treated with the same symptoms as a dementia. Depression, thyroid problems, Vitamin B-12 deficiency and overmedication or drug interactions are just a few conditions that can look like the onset of dementia.

    Early diagnosis of a dementia gives you and your family member time to plan for the future, create some memories for the family by planning some special activities and full access to the drugs that can maintain the quality of your family member’s life and making caring for them easier for you.

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