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Is Dementia a Normal Part of Aging?

By Kim AcostaApril 7, 2021
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As we age, it’s normal for our brains to change. But dementia — an umbrella term that’s used to describe a loss of memory, language, and thinking abilities that interferes with daily life — isn’t a normal part of the aging process.

Seniors who have trouble completing day-to-day activities independently — such as preparing meals, paying bills, navigating through their neighborhood, or remembering appointments — may be diagnosed with dementia. In comparison, typical age-related changes in thinking are subtle and generally affect speed and attention. Learn the signs of normal aging vs. dementia, the links between memory and aging, and how to help a loved one find treatment for cognitive decline.

How does aging affect the brain?

From birth to old age, a healthy brain goes through transformations that affect emotion, learning ability, and decision-making skills. For example, neuron activity and blood flow typically decrease with age, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIH). Certain parts of the brain also shrink, including those important to complex mental activities and learning. Inflammation — the body’s response to injury or disease — may also increase as people age, leading to mild memory impairment.

Some key stages of brain development by age include:

  • 20s: The part of the brain that regulates emotion, judgement, and problem solving (the prefrontal cortex) completes development around age 25. The brain is at peak performance level and weighs around 3 pounds.
  • 30s: Memory begins to worsen as early as age 30, when the brain starts losing volume and neurons decrease.
  • 40s-60s: After age 40, the average adult loses 5% brain volume each decade. However, emotional regulation begins to improve in middle age.
  • 70s -90s: The brain declines more quickly after age 70, and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia increases to 50% after age 85.

What is cognitive decline?

Cognition refers to the ability to learn, remember, and make judgments, according to the CDC. Cognition helps you understand and process the world around you, and interact safely with it. Because of the way the brain changes as you age, cognitive abilities also often change. Cognitive decline is a noticeable, measurable reduction of these cognitive abilities, and can range from mild to severe.

Perception, motor skills, visual and spatial processing, memory, and attention are all types of cognitive functions. It’s normal for these abilities to deteriorate slightly with age. For example, someone may have a harder time paying attention during long movies or conversations, or experience some difficulty mentally visualizing images and scenarios.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) progresses beyond the cognitive decline of normal aging, but isn’t as severe as dementia. Older adults with MCI may be aware their memory isn’t what it used to be, and the change may be noticeable to friends and family. While it can lead to problems with memory, language, and judgement, MCI doesn’t hinder a senior’s ability to do everyday activities.

What is dementia? Is dementia a part of normal aging?

Dementia is a general term for very severe cognitive impairment, which goes beyond the mild cognitive decline expected from normal aging. People who have dementia have problems with memory, language, thinking, and problem solving that worsen over time. These issues are significant enough that they affect daily living, behaviors, and emotion. Seniors with dementia may require extra care, like in-home care or memory care, as the disease progresses. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of elderly dementia.

Normal aging vs. dementia: What’s the difference?

For older adults, any lapse in memory, no matter how slight, can be alarming. However, brief periods of forgetfulness are a normal part of the aging process and usually do not indicate a more serious memory condition.

Memory and aging: What’s normal?

Because of the ways the brain changes as you age, slightly reduced memory and aging go hand-in-hand for most adults. As they age, older adults may:

  • Find words and recall names more slowly.
  • Have more problems with multitasking.
  • Notice slightly lower ability to pay attention.
  • Learn new skills more slowly.

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3 key differences between normal aging and dementia

Scientifically, the difference between dementia and normal aging is largely a question of severity, and how much of an effect cognitive decline has on a senior’s everyday life. Here are three key behavioral differences:

Ability to complete daily tasks. Seniors aging normally may take longer or have some difficulty completing once-familiar tasks. But in people who have dementia, an everyday task like dressing, making a sandwich, writing a check, or placing a phone call may be very difficult or impossible to complete.

Forming new memories. Older adults with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia may have difficulty making new memories, but memories from early in life are often preserved throughout the early stages of the disease. Seniors aging normally can still capture and retain new memories.

Ability to learn new skills. Learning new things is often impossible for people who have dementia, which is why many dementia care settings focus on using activities and therapies to retain existing skills. Seniors aging normally may have a harder time learning new languages, interacting with technology, or undertaking projects than younger adults, but practicing these skills can actually help slow cognitive decline.

How are memory loss and dementia evaluated?

When it comes to cognitive ability, the definition of “normal” varies from person to person. For example, some people have naturally better memories than others, which makes determining normal aging vs. dementia challenging.

Cognitive changes can be subtle, and often vary by individual. If you suspect cognitive decline in a loved one, share your concerns with their doctor. The doctor will likely perform a cognitive assessment to:

  • Screen for cognitive impairment.
  • Determine the possible causes of your loved one’s symptoms.
  • Rate the severity of memory loss.
  • Monitor memory loss progression.

Can you prevent memory loss or dementia?

As noted above, it can be challenging determining the pace and symptoms of cognitive decline. But it’s important to know common warning signs and symptoms, like difficulty controlling behavior, processing information, or working through problems, so you can determine when it’s time for memory care or medical intervention.

A number of factors contribute to a person’s risk for cognitive decline, including dementia. Some risk factors – like age and your genetics – aren’t in your control. But you do have some control over other risk factors, like exercise and diet. To help reduce your loved one’s risk for memory loss and other symptoms of cognitive decline, try the following:

  • Encourage a healthy lifestyle. Lifestyle changes, like getting enough sleep, staying physically active, and eating a healthy diet can help lower the risk of cognitive decline and preserve the abilities you have.
  • Try new things to keep the mind sharp. Trying new or challenging things can help stave off cognitive decline. Find a new hobby, practice a new skill, or try puzzles and games to keep your mind engaged.
  • Prioritize social connections. Research suggests that adults who are lonely are more likely to develop dementia. Cultivating relationships with family and friends can help combat isolation and reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
  • Seek help for persistent symptoms. If you’re concerned about a loved one, talk to a doctor. Denying your concerns can be dangerous for caregivers and elderly loved ones alike.
Kim Acosta

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