As a caregiver, you’re likely aware of every change in your loved one’s behavior. Sometimes it can be hard to tell if they’re experiencing a brief moment of forgetfulness or something more concerning. While everyone has the occasional mental lapse, you shouldn’t expect memory loss to be part of your loved one’s life as they age.
The terms “age-related dementia” and “old-age dementia” are inaccurate — dementia is not part of the normal aging process. Dementia symptoms can include memory loss, changes in mood or behavior, and loss of reasoning skills. Normal aging, on the other hand, leaves a senior’s ability to reason and problem solve intact.
Normal aging vs. dementia
“As the brain ages and accumulates ever-increasing memories and data, accessing this information as fast as you might have in your youth becomes more difficult. Many of us have had the experience of having an elusive name or fact pop up in our mind a few minutes later in a conversation, particularly when we were relaxed and not urgently searching for an answer,” said Dr. Allen Weiss, a board-certified geriatrician and Chief Medical Officer of the Blue Zones Project.
These instances of forgetfulness do not indicate memory loss. Instead, they may be the result of an abundance of information and slower recall. Things like fatigue, hunger, poor nutrition, alcohol, drugs, illnesses, emotional state, and environment also impact someone’s ability to recall information, according to Dr. Weiss.
The brain does change with age, though. Volume loss begins in middle age, and regions of the brain responsible for learning, language, and memory are the most prone to decline. The chart below shows common examples of normal aging compared to the early signs of different dementia types.
Remember that each person has different experiences with dementia. If you have concerns about your loved one — or even yourself — it’s important to see a doctor.
Normal aging vs. dementia chart
Lewy body dementia
Trouble recalling items to buy at the grocery store
Forgetting events completely
Insomnia and visual, audible, or tactile hallucinations
Inability to make decisions and plan events
Trouble remembering future tasks, like taking medication
Putting things in strange places
Sleep problems and hallucinations
Poor judgment, apathy, paranoia, and confusion
Frequently losing all drive and motivation
Difficulty recalling how you learned information (E.g., from a friend or the news)
Getting lost in a once familiar setting
Difficulty with language, including reading and writing
Day-to-day changes in cognitive abilities, alertness, and concentration
Rudeness, impulsivity, and lack of inhibition
Taking more time to learn new information
Anxiety and paranoia
Poor balance or unsteady walking
Poor balance and rigid muscles
Repeating tasks or words
Needing more time to complete complex tasks
Aggression and violent behavior
Mood disorders like depression and frequent anger
Problems understanding language or numbers
Problems with movement (Parkinsonism)
Old age or dementia? When to seek medical help
Dementia progresses gradually, so you may notice only a few symptoms at first. If these instances become more frequent and your loved one’s behavior has begun to change, it’s important to see a doctor for a dementia screening.
Since dementia symptoms vary, it’s important to track them. Note anything concerning and how often it occurs — especially if it interferes with your loved one’s daily activities or relationships. Establishing a baseline will help your loved one’s doctor understand what’s happening.
During a dementia screening, your loved one’s doctor will want to rule out any conditions which could affect their cognitive health. They’ll ask for a detailed medical and family history, and you can expect blood work and other laboratory tests, too. Depending on their symptoms and the type of dementia the doctor suspects, your loved one may undergo the following:
- Neurological tests to gauge memory and problem-solving abilities.
- Brain scans such as MRI, CT, and PET scans.
- Psychiatric evaluation for mental health concerns like depression that may have symptoms similar to dementia.
- Genetic testing to determine if their family history predisposes them to dementia.
Mild cognitive impairment
If your loved one becomes consistently more forgetful without personality changes, they may only have mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Someone with MCI may even be aware that they are becoming more forgetful, whereas someone with dementia is usually unaware of their worsening symptoms.
Symptoms of MCI include:
- Struggling to find the right word for something
- Forgetting upcoming appointments or events
- Misplacing things
- Difficulties with movement
- Changes in sense of smell
MCI can be caused by many things, some of which are treatable. Like dementia, mild cognitive impairment needs to be diagnosed by a doctor. Some people with MCI do go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease, so dementia prevention through healthy lifestyle choices is crucial.
Tips to improve cognitive health
Whether your loved one has dementia or you want to be proactive about your own brain health, lifestyle adjustments are scientifically proven to help. Make cognitive health a priority by adopting these beneficial habits and mind-stimulating activities:
- Adopt a healthy and consistent sleep routine
- Adopt a heart- and brain-healthy diet
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
- Exercise regularly
- Quit smoking – it causes high blood pressure, which can increase dementia risk
- Take up a new hobby, such as quilting or gardening, that uses more than one of your senses
- Learn something new and embrace education
- Engage with others through volunteer work
- Relax with crosswords, Sudoku puzzles, or other cognitively stimulating games
These measures can even help slow the rate of decline for someone already diagnosed with dementia. Specialized therapies and activities for dementia patients might include things like reminiscence or music therapy.
Prevention and intervention through healthy lifestyle choices and cognitive stimulation is explained by leaders in dementia research as the best route to reduce the chances of developing severe dementia later in life. They remind caregivers to “be ambitious” by helping their loved ones lead a holistically healthy lifestyle.
Resources and support for dementia patients and caregivers
A dementia diagnosis is life changing, both for your loved one and for you as a caregiver. In addition to working closely with your loved one’s care team, consider exploring the following resources to learn about their condition and what the future may hold:
- Alzheimer’s and related Dementias Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
- Alzheimer’s Association
- Alzheimer’s Foundation of America
- Lewy Body Dementia Resource Center
- The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration
Your local hospitals and Area Agency on Aging will also be able to direct you to additional resources, including caregiver support groups. AgingCare’s Caregiver Forum is an excellent source of online support for busy caregivers who are looking for answers, advice, and encouragement from their peers.
Many families opt to care for loved ones at home, but this might be more challenging after a dementia diagnosis.
“When the loss of memory starts affecting your ability to perform the activities of daily life, such as finding your way to a familiar place or accomplishing a chore which you previously could do with facility and now cannot handle, then you need professional help,” said Dr. Weiss.
Help doesn’t always have to come from a family member. Caregiver burnout is real — especially among dementia caregivers. You may want to consider local in-home care options for your family. An in-home caregiver can help with household tasks and provide additional companionship for your loved one.
In the later stages, dementia often necessitates 24-hour care and additional home safety measures. If caregiving responsibilities have become overwhelming, it may be time to consider memory care. Specialized memory care communities offer a secure setting, around-the-clock caregiving services, tailored activities, and therapies to ensure seniors living with dementia are safe, healthy, and engaged.
Ageing and the Brain (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2596698/)
Normal Cognitive Aging (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4015335/)
What are the signs of Alzheimer’s disease? (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-are-signs-alzheimers-disease)
Vascular Dementia: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/vascular-dementia)
What is Lewy Body dementia? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-lewy-body-dementia-causes-symptoms-and-treatments)
What are Frontotemporal Disorders? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment (https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/what-are-frontotemporal-disorders)