Everyone is forgetful sometimes. From misplacing wallets to missing the occasional appointment, things can simply slip our minds. Forgetfulness can get worse when you’re experiencing stress, are especially busy, have taken on a new challenge or haven’t been getting enough sleep. Occasional memory lapses are a part of the normal aging process. The Mayo clinic suggests they probably aren’t cause for concern if they aren’t getting significantly worse or accompanied by other problems, such as personality changes, disorientation, frequent struggles to find the right words or difficulty completing familiar tasks.
The Difference Between Age-Related Memory Loss and Dementia
The difference between normal aging vs. dementia, is that dementia becomes disabling. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dementia is not a specific disease, but a general term for the impaired ability to remember, think or make decisions that interferes with everyday activities. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia.
Is Dementia a Normal Part of Aging?
Though dementia mostly affects older adults, it is not a part of normal aging. When it comes to normal forgetfulness and dementia one benchmark distinguishes the two: disruption. While normal memory loss with age may be frustrating or inconvenient, dementia significantly disrupts a person’s life.
According to Mayo Clinic, common age-related memory-loss symptoms include occasionally forgetting a name or a word but recalling it later in the day. You might also need a list more often to help you remember tasks. Sometimes misplacing common items but finding them in logical places is also typical.
Signs and Symptoms of Dementia
According to the CDC, symptoms of dementia can vary widely from person to person. Signs of dementia in the elderly include problems with memory, attention, communication, reasoning, judgment, task completion, problem-solving, moods, behaviors, and spatial and visual perception.
If you’re determining forgetfulness vs. Alzheimer's or forgetfulness vs. dementia in a loved one, consider these early signs of dementia development:
- Frequently forgetting important dates and events
- Having trouble remembering names of friends and loved ones
- Asking for the same information over and over
- Trouble completing and staying focused on familiar tasks (like following a recipe or balancing a checkbook)
- Significant difficulty concentrating
- Getting lost in a familiar neighborhood
- Forgetting how to play a favorite game or participate in a favorite hobby
- Losing track of dates and seasons
- Not knowing where they are or how they got there
- Difficulty reading (not due to vision problems)
- Trouble judging distances or color/contrast
- Problems following a conversation or frequent trouble finding the right words
- Constantly losing items and being unable to find them
- Poor financial judgment
- A decline in personal hygiene
- Withdrawal from hobbies and social activities
- Increased irritability and personality changes
These signs do not necessarily mean someone is developing dementia. Many of these symptoms can also stem from a number of other causes, including emotional stress or grief, mental health issues like anxiety or depression and medical problems. If you or a loved one has several of these symptoms, it’s important to consult a medical professional to see if there is cause for concern.
When Should You Seek Medical Help?
As soon as you or your loved one notice that their memory is getting worse and is having trouble remembering, thinking, concentrating or participating in familiar activities and everyday tasks, it’s important to see a doctor. A physical exam, blood tests and brain scans can help determine an underlying cause.
Medical providers will also screen for reversible causes for patients who show signs of dementia. The Mayo Clinic states that reversible underlying causes could include medication side effects, increased brain pressure, vitamin deficiency or a thyroid imbalance.
If the doctor suspects dementia after the examination, a course of management and treatment can be recommended. Neurodegenerative dementias, like Alzheimer’s disease, have no cure, but medications are available that can help slow their progression or reduce symptoms like disorientation, anxiety, delusions or behavioral changes. Research is underway for more effective treatments.