Most people are familiar with the physical challenges that aging presents — aching joints, a higher risk of falls, changing skin. Aging also affects the way people think and learn because the brain shrinks and becomes less adept at mastering new information. This can affect memory, slow thinking, and make it more difficult for a person to master new skills. However, the changes are subtle, and people of all ages experience periodic memory slips and gaps in knowledge. Distinguishing the signs of normal aging versus dementia is critical for healthy aging and planning for the future.
Dementia vs. Normal Aging: The Basics
About 40 percent of people 65 and older experience some form of memory loss. Mild cognitive impairment, a type of general deterioration in mental function, is common as people age. It is also a risk factor for dementia. This means that even typical aging can turn into something else with time, so it’s important to monitor your aging loved ones. Some signs of normal aging and/or mild cognitive impairment include:
- Struggling to remember details of events or conversations that happened a long time ago
- Occasional word-finding difficulties
- Forgetting names or appointments but remembering them later
- Occasionally losing things
- Slightly slowed reaction times
- Occasional bad judgment or thoughtless decisions
- Vision changes related to aging — for example, a person might have cloudy vision because of cataracts
- Becoming increasingly rigid about a routine but continuing to be able to function when the routine is disrupted
Some signs of a more serious problem, such as dementia, include:
- Not being able to remember a recent conversation or event, or forgetting what’s happening while it’s happening
- Being unable to learn or remember new information
- Significant language issues, such as struggling to have a conversation because of word-finding problems
- Significant mood or personality changes such as depression, anxiety, or intense irritability
- Appearing apathetic or withdrawn
- Frequently pausing when talking
- Forgetting family members’ names
- Often getting lost and needing help finding one’s way
- Significant declines in reaction time, which may affect driving, cooking, or the ability to recover from tripping and falling
- Trouble with vision or depth perception that makes it difficult to navigate the world — for example, a person may have trouble climbing stairs or feel like they have tunnel vision
When and Where to Get Help
A diagnosis begins with your family physician. Depending on your loved one’s symptoms, the doctor may refer you to a neurologist or recommend neuropsychological testing. The right tests can determine your loved one’s particular type of dementia and rule out other diseases — such as depression or a brain lesion — that can mimic the symptoms of dementia.
Seek help if your loved one shows any signs of dementia, or if you’ve noticed a general decline in their ability to function. If you don’t live near your loved one, these early signs may be difficult to notice. So look instead for secondary clues, such as:
- An increasingly messy house
- Deteriorating hygiene
- Missed appointments or family functions
- A tendency to get lost
- Car damage indicative of possible accidents
- Expressions of concern from friends or neighbors
- Changes in mood or personality
Why Early Diagnosis Matters
Dementia is a progressive illness with no known cure. It’s also among the most feared illnesses. A 2017 study found that some people fear that a dementia diagnosis will change how others respond to and feel about them. So it’s understandable that many seniors don’t want to see a doctor for a disease they perceive as terrible and untreatable.
The truth is that an early diagnosis can make a big difference in a senior’s quality of life. Early in the disease’s progress, medication is typically more effective. Other interventions, such as occupational and speech therapy, modifications to the senior’s house, and therapy to help the senior process their emotions may slow the progression of the disease or make their life with dementia more manageable.
Perhaps most importantly, early diagnosis offers a chance to plan for the future. Seniors can discuss their values and fears. They can get their affairs in order, reducing the risk of financial problems and decreasing the financial stress their loved ones face.
The right senior living community is a key part of the planning process. Most people with dementia eventually need residential care and support. If your loved one has dementia, consider touring a community now. This can ease fears and even instill a sense of hope for life in a compassionate community that is committed to seniors. The Arbor Company has served seniors for three decades. We’re here for you when you need us. Give us a call to learn more!