Dementia vs. Aging: Know the Difference
Dementia is not a normal part of the aging process. Problems caused by dementia can directly, and sometimes severely, interfere with a person’s ability to perform everyday activities. In comparison, typical age-related changes in thinking are subtle, and generally affect speed and attention. As we get older, it’s normal for our brains to struggle more to stay on task, to think quickly.
What is dementia?
At the most basic level, dementia is caused by damage to brain cells, damage that prohibits them from properly transferring signals and communicating with each other. Depending on the region of the brain in which the cells are damaged, various cognitive functions can be impacted. Dementia is a general term for diseases and conditions that cause cognitive decline, or a disruption in the ability to think, remember, and reason. Alzheimer’s disease, for instance, is the leading cause of dementia, and not, as many believe, a synonym for dementia. Because it’s a cognitive disease, shaping the ways a person thinks and feels, dementia can also affect a person’s behavior and interactions with others.
What are the cognitive signs of normal aging?
As adults age, certain parts of the brain can shrink, particularly those related to cognitive function. As the National Institute on Aging notes, neuron activity and blood flow in the brain may also decrease, while inflammation may increase—all of which can affect cognitive function as adults age.
Part of the challenge in determining whether a sign of aging is normal or abnormal is that, in large part, the definition of ‘normal’ is fluid. Cognitive changes can be subtle, and often vary by individual. Some aging adults may experience some occasional short-term memory loss. Others may have difficulty concentrating or paying attention from time to time. What’s normal for one person may not be normal for another, making it challenging to pinpoint when exactly signs of normal aging begin to hint at more worrying signs of cognitive decline.
How do the signs of dementia compare?
Dementia is marked by an aging adult’s inability to complete everyday tasks. While occasional forgetfulness or lapses in attention span associated with normal aging can be frustrating, they’re unlikely to stop you from finishing something once you’ve started. A sudden degradation in motor skills, difficulty controlling one’s behavior, processing information or working through problems—these are all signs of dementia.
As noted above, it can be challenging determining the pace and signs of cognitive decline. While a definitive answer may not always apply to your unique situation, the Healthline has assembled a list of symptoms to watch out for:
- Repetitive questioning
- Increased apathy
- Forgetfulness of recent events
- Excessive tripping or loss of balance
- Failing sense of direction
- Personality changes
- Persistent confusion
- Struggles with change
- Difficulty finding the right words
- Socially inappropriate behaviors
The progression of cognitive deficits observed in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease may be accelerated in the few years immediately preceding the diagnosis. Accelerated cognitive decline may not occur until events, like a life stressor or other illness (e.g., pneumonia), reach a threshold where the brain can no longer compensate for damage. Thus, it is important to get regular medical check-ups to monitor the extent and severity to which someone may be experiencing cognitive decline.
When to talk to a doctor
No matter the age, consulting a physician if you suspect cognitive decline is a good step. Your doctor can gain a better understanding of the symptoms and potentially rule out other possible causes of thinking difficulties such as poor managing of medications, abnormal thyroid functioning or vitamin deficiencies.
In some cases, the physician may order imaging scans—including a CT scan or an MRI—or even perform brief cognitive screening tests.
Three types of physicians who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of dementia include:
Geriatrician: An internist or family practitioner who specializes in the care of older adults.
Geriatric psychiatrist: A doctor who specializes in the emotional and mental needs of older adults.
Neurologist: A doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous system.
It can be difficult to discern the normal aging process from potential signs of dementia, and because the aging process is unique to each person, consider discussing specific concerns with a physician.