As a person gets older, all parts of the body go through normal, age-related changes. The brain is no exception. But how can you tell if the changes you are seeing in yourself or a loved one are due to the normal aging process or the result of some disease process? Knowing the specifics about normal age-related changes can help you determine that answer.
When we age, our brain goes through changes. It literally reduces in size; blood vessels narrow; inflammation increases. These changes affect our ability to learn new things, do complex tasks, and remember names, people, or events. However, scientists have also found that an aging brain can also recruit other areas or functions to compensate for some of the early difficulties. You can maximize your “brain health” a number of ways. Start by controlling your risk factors for chronic illnesses like heart disease or diabetes. Engage in regular exercise, doing things you really enjoy like walking, gardening, or playing golf. Always maintain a healthy diet indulging in splurges only occasionally. And, remember to spend your free time engaging in intellectual, social, and spiritual activities.
However, some people as they get older begin to exhibit more difficulties in the area of memory and learning. These changes may result in dementia. Dementia is a general term that refers to a loss thinking, memory, reasoning skills, and behavioral skills. The loss is great enough to affect daily living. According to the National Institute on Aging, the most common causes of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
The hallmarks of early dementia behavior include word finding difficulties, poor judgment, and poor problem solving. However, as the disease progresses, behaviors such as forgetting a familiar route, problems handling money or paying bills and repeating questions are common. In addition, you may notice the person taking much longer to do simple tasks, losing items, or placing items in unusual places – car keys under the mattress, for example. Even at this stage of dementia, a person may be able to live in their own home. Usually when mood or personality changes happen, it may spur families or spouses to seek help. Frequently, a person with dementia will display anger, paranoia, or repetitive behaviors. They may become suspicious of family and strangers and falsely accuse loved ones of stealing.
Be aware of the subtle changes in memory and behavior early on and enlist the help of your family physician. A thorough examination with neurological testing may differentiate between normal aging and dementia. The earlier the diagnosis the earlier you can begin treatment.