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Is Dementia a Normal Part of Aging?

17 minute readLast updated September 13, 2022
Written by Nirali Desai, memory care writer

As we age, it’s normal for our brains to change. But dementia — an umbrella term that’s used to describe loss of memory, language, and thinking abilities — isn’t a normal part of aging. Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not age-related. Dementia is a neurodegenerative condition that interferes with daily life.

Unlike dementia, typical age-related changes in thinking are subtle and generally affect speed, recall, and attention. However, seniors with severe symptoms and trouble completing day-to-day activities independently may be diagnosed with dementia.

Learn the differences between normal aging versus dementia, the links between memory and aging, and how to care for a loved one experiencing cognitive decline.

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Normal aging vs. dementia

An infographic shows the difference between normal aging and dementia.

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 dementia diagnosis. Old age dementia is not a condition in and of itself.

Physical changes in the aging brain

From birth to old age, a healthy brain goes through transformations that affect emotion, learning ability, and decision-making skills. As we age, brain cell communication and blood flow typically decrease, according to the National Institute on Aging.[01]

Certain parts of the brain shrink, including those important to complex mental activities and learning. And, inflammation — the body’s response to injury or disease — can also increase as people age, leading to mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Because of these age-related brain changes, an impaired memory is normal for most adults.

Normal memory-related brain changes

Impaired memory function is the most widely seen cognitive change associated with aging. Memory itself is divided into four types:

  • Episodic memory is the brain’s ability to recall where, when, and how information was discovered.
  • Semantic memory is the brain’s ability to recall ideas, concepts, and numbers.
  • Procedural memory is the brain’s ability to unconsciously remember actions and motor skills.
  • Working memory is the brain’s ability to hold information temporarily and aids in thinking, reasoning, judging, and decision-making.

Decline in episodic and semantic memory is most commonly associated with normal aging. Episodic memory starts declining in middle age, while semantic memory increases in middle age and declines in the late elderly stages. Decline in procedural and working memory is not typical of normal aging and could be a sign of dementia.[02]

After age 40, the average adult loses 5% brain volume each decade.[02] Older adults may be slower to find the right words or recall names, have difficulty with multitasking, and learn new skills slower than before.

Dementia-related brain changes

Dementia is a general term for 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 gradually affect activities of daily living, behaviors, emotions, judgment, and communication.

After age 65, the risk of dementia doubles approximately every five years, and by age 85, the risk reaches nearly one-third.[03] Although age is an important risk factor for dementia, it is not a cause of it.

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Normal aging vs. dementia charts

An infographic shows the difference between dementia and other conditions.

Dementia comes in many forms and can be caused by a number of brain and central nervous system disorders. Two of the most common types of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Other types of dementia include frontotemporal dementia, Lewy body dementia, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Huntington’s disease, with the last two being the rarest. Dementia patients can also experience more than one type of dementia at a time, with a diagnosis of mixed dementia.

See below for a comparison of the various types of dementia behaviors against normal aging behaviors.

Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia vs. normal aging

Alzheimer’s disease is caused by changes in the brain, including abnormal buildups of certain proteins — known as amyloid plaques and tau tangles — and a loss of connections between nerve cells.[04] On the other hand, vascular dementia is caused by different conditions, such as strokes and hemorrhages, which interrupt the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.[05]

Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia have similar symptoms. Take a look at this normal aging versus dementia chart to help you identify the differences between normal aging and two of the most common forms of dementia [06]:

Common in normal aging adultsCommon in Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia patients
Planning and decision makingPlanning and decision making
Makes poor choices once in a whileMakes poor decisions more frequently, and seems to lack judgment in diverse settings 
Finds it hard to multitask, but is able to focus on a single taskStruggles with staying focused on a single task
May miss an important deadline once or twice a year (for example, a monthly payment)Struggles with all important deadlines such as monthly bills
Memory and learningMemory and learning
Forgets things they were told a while agoForgets things they were recently told
Loses or misplaces things sometimes, but is able to eventually find themPlaces important items, like keys, in unusual places
Takes longer to learn new tasksIs unable to learn new tasks
OrientationOrientation
Forgets which day it is, but remembers it laterLoses track of the date, season, or time of year
Gets lost in an unknown place, but eventually finds their wayGets lost in familiar or easy-to-navigate places, such as a grocery store
Mood and behaviorMood and behavior
Reluctant to participate in work, family, and social meetings sometimesComplete loss of interest in work, friends, or hobbies
Feels down or anxious sometimesFeels unusually sad, anxious, or frightened
Becomes irritable with routine changes, but can eventually copeGets easily upset at home, work, or with friends in places that usually feel comfortable or familiar
LanguageLanguage
Forgets which word to use sometimes, but eventually remembers itHas frequent problems finding the right word to use
Needs to concentrate harder to keep up with some conversationsStruggles to take part in regular conversations
Loses train of thought or gets confused in a conversation with many distractionsIs unable to follow what someone is saying even without distractions

Frontotemporal dementia vs. normal aging

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a progressive disorder caused by damage to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain.[07] There are three types of FTD — behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD), primary progressive aphasia (PPA), and movement disorders.

Here is a breakdown of common FTD symptoms categorized by each type:

Behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD)Primary progressive aphasia (PPA)Movement disorders
Finds it difficult to plan and sequence behaviors or eventsFinds it difficult to use or understand some wordsLoses mobility in hands or arms
Struggles to prioritize tasks or activitiesStruggles with speaking: slurred speech, loss of words, or inability to speakExperiences muscle stiffness
Repeats the same words over and over againAimlessly wandersHas difficulty swallowing
Acts impulsive or inappropriateActs impulsive or inappropriateStruggles with balance and walking
Shows apathy and lacks empathyExperiences changes in appetiteTroubles with eye movements

Note: Some of the above symptoms, like muscle stiffness and apathy, can be associated with normal aging. So, be sure to look for other signs as well if you suspect dementia, such as pronounced behavioral and physical changes.

Lewy body dementia vs. normal aging

Lewy body dementia, also known as DLB, is a type of dementia caused by Lewy body disease — a disease in which tiny clumps of proteins — known as Lewy bodies — form in the nerve cells of the brain.[08] These Lewy bodies typically form in areas of the brain that are involved in memory, thinking, and movement. They overwhelm the normal biological functions of brain cells, causing them to die.

Lewy bodies cause a range of symptoms, some of which overlap with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, often causing misdiagnoses of Lewy body dementia. Approximately one in 10 people with dementia have Lewy body dementia, according to recent findings.[09]

The most common symptoms of Lewy body dementia include changes in cognition, movement, sleep, and behavior. Here is a chart of distinctive Lewy body dementia symptoms versus some Lewy body dementia symptoms that overlap with symptoms of normal aging:

Symptoms distinct to Lewy body dementiaSymptoms of Lewy body dementia that overlap with normal aging
Visual hallucinations and delusionsMuscle stiffness
Unpredictable changes in concentration, attention, alertness, and wakefulnessSlowed movement
Smaller handwriting than usualDifficulties with balance
REM sleep behavior disorderRestless leg syndrome
InsomniaUrinary incontinence
Sudden onset of depression, anxiety, or paranoiaSensitivity to heat and cold

What is mild cognitive impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an early stage of memory loss, between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia. Older adults with mild cognitive impairment typically have more memory or thinking problems than the average person.[10]

Symptoms of MCI aren’t as severe as dementia symptoms and may include the following:

  • Often losing or misplacing things
  • Trouble remembering events or appointments
  • Trouble with finding words in regular conversation
  • Difficulties with movement
  • Problems with sense of smell

People with MCI do not typically experience personality and behavioral changes that are commonly associated with dementia and are able to take care of themselves and do their normal activities. However, MCI can signal a predisposition to developing full-blown dementia later on, so it’s important to act now on dementia prevention.

Dementia is diagnosed by a doctor

If you suspect that your loved one may have dementia or MCI, keep track of their symptoms so you can be prepared to talk to a doctor about them. To evaluate whether someone has dementia, doctors will typically follow a similar process:

  1. Assess whether your loved one has a curable, underlying condition that causes cognitive difficulties.
  2. Perform a physical exam to measure blood pressure, vital signs, and other necessary laboratory tests.
  3. Review your loved one’s medical and family history to assess their dementia risk.
  4. Order a cognitive test, brain scan, psychiatric evaluation, genetic test, or blood test based on your loved one’s symptoms and health history.

A cognitive test is used to assess thinking and physical functioning, while brain scans can help identify strokes, tumors, or other problems that can lead to dementia. Furthermore, learning about your loved one’s mental health, genes, and amyloid protein presence can help doctors determine the cause of your loved one’s symptoms.

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Can you prevent dementia?

A number of factors contribute to a person’s future risk for cognitive decline. Some risk factors — like age and genetics — aren’t in your control. But you do have some control over risk factors like exercise and diet. Whether or not your loved one is in a high-risk age or genetic group, you can help reduce future risk for dementia with the following lifestyle choices:

  • Encourage memory-enhancing lifestyle changes. Lifestyle changes, like getting enough sleep, staying physically active, and eating a healthy diet can help lower the risk of cognitive decline and preserve your loved one’s current abilities.
  • Keep the mind sharp with brain games. Mentally stimulating activities can help stave off cognitive decline.[11] Help your loved one find a new hobby, practice a new skill, embrace education, or try puzzles and games to keep their mind engaged.
  • Consider adopting a heart and brain-healthy diet. Long-term clinical studies consistently show how diet and supplementation support brain and heart health, effectively lowering the risk for dementia later in life.
  • Keep health conditions under control. Health complications due to strokes, diabetes, and high blood pressure pose a risk for dementia development. Be sure to keep them under control through medications, dietary changes, exercises, and therapies to potentially prevent dementia.

If symptoms or signs of dementia are increasing in your loved one, talk to their doctor. It’s important to note warning signs and symptoms, like those noted above, so you can determine next steps. Doctors may also help you identify underlying causes and navigate a potential diagnosis.

In the case of a dementia diagnosis, be sure to consider the best care options for your loved one. Depending on the stage of dementia, it may be time for in-home care or memory care. Speak to a Senior Living Advisor at A Place for Mom today — they’ll happily offer free advice and local solutions catered to your loved one’s unique needs.

SHARE THE ARTICLE

  1. National Institute on Aging. National Institute of Health. (2020, October 19). How the aging brain affects thinking.

Meet the Author
Nirali Desai, memory care writer

Nirali Desai is a senior copywriter at A Place for Mom specializing in memory care and life enrichment topics. Previously, she worked in marketing and social media, edited a regional senior magazine, and wrote for the American Red Cross. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas.

Edited by

Marlena Gates

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