During the process of normal or “healthy” aging, there are natural changes that take place if one is free of any disease. Dementia, on the other hand, is not a normal outcome of aging. Being able to recognize the difference between normal aging and dementia in you or a loved one can assist you in determining when additional help or evaluation is needed.
In normal aging, you can expect a number of skills and abilities to remain intact or only slightly different. You will continue to be independent in what are often referred to as daily living activities. These activities include bathing, dressing, driving, preparing meals, managing finances and working. You may notice that sometimes you forget things, but you will be able to give details about those incidents of forgetfulness. This occasional forgetfulness may concern you, but may not be noticed by friends or family. Despite these occasional lapses of forgetfulness, your memory for recent events and your ability to hold a conversation will remain robust. Although you may notice occasional difficulty finding the specific word to use, your vocabulary will still be as extensive as it always was. It is also “normal aging” when you get lost in a familiar place, forget where you put your keys, or forget birthdays or anniversaries. You may have to give yourself a few moments to remember these things, but you WILL remember. As you age, you will also continue to learn new things, if you are open to learning.
Lifestyle factors that contribute to healthy aging include: not smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, healthy social activity, physical exercise that promotes flexibility, strength, and mood, routine medical care to maintain good health, and keeping your mind stimulated through activities such as reading, crossword puzzles, or new hobbies.
Now, contrast the abilities and skills of normal aging stated above with what you can expect with dementia. A person with dementia depends on others for those daily activities that will keep them independent. He or she will not be able to recall incidents of memory loss and may only complain about memory problems if specifically asked. These more frequent occasions of memory loss will become most obvious to close family members. In addition, there may be a noticeable decline in memory for recent events or the ability to maintain a conversation. A person with dementia has considerable difficulty finding and using the right word. The person may use substitutions for the word he/she wants or may use a description instead of the actual word. Word finding continues to decline in dementia. The person may lose his/her way in what was very familiar territory and sometimes may take hours to find their way back. Also, a person who has even early dementia will not be able to learn new things or may take extensive repetitions to remember the sequence of new events. Factors that can lead to decline and possible dementia include: untreated high blood pressure or diabetes, poor nutrition, heart disease, stress, depression, social isolation or a family history of dementia.
If you are noting memory changes in yourself or a loved one that you think might be dementia, make an appointment with your doctor. He or she can assess your health and answer any questions you may have. If you or your doctor believes that staying at home is not an option, then independent senior living or assisted living communities may be an opportunity for you to get the care you need.