Normal Ageing or Dementia?

As we age, our bodies and brains go through a number of changes. It can be difficult to tell if the changes that we are experiencing can just be put down to general ageing, or if they may be a sign of something more serious. This article explains the differences between normal ageing and dementia. 

How Is Dementia Different From Normal Ageing?

It’s completely normal to become a bit more forgetful as we age. Changes are likely to develop around middle age, from our 40s and into our 50s and 60s. For example, as we get older, most of us will take a bit longer to remember things. We may also get more easily distracted and become less able to multi-task the way we used to in our younger years. While these changes may be frustrating, they are completely normal and nothing to worry about. These symptoms alone are not a sign of dementia.

Dementia’ is the term for a group of symptoms that occur when the brain becomes damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, or diseases of the blood vessels that can cause a stroke. 

The Signs and Symptoms of Dementia

A person with dementia is likely to experience significant decline in their mental abilities, such as memory, thinking and reasoning. In order for dementia to be diagnosed by a medical professional, they will have to see that the person’s symptoms have developed enough to have a significant impact on their everyday life.  For example, a person with dementia may experience problems with driving, difficulties paying bills, using their mobile phone, or remembering how often and when to take their medication.

The below table shows some of the changes for the most common types of dementia: Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and mixed dementia. Other, less common types of dementia may have symptoms that are not shown below.

The table shows the possible changes that may occur due to both normal ageing and early dementia. Remember that everyone is different, and not everyone with dementia will have all of these changes. Similarly, if you are experiencing some of these symptoms, it does not necessarily mean that you have dementia; other conditions can be the reason for certain symptoms.  

Speak to a medical professional if you are worried about symptoms that you are experiencing or symptoms that a loved one has. Dementia can only be diagnosed by an experienced health professional.

 

Changes that are likely the result of normal ageing

Changes that may occur due to dementia

Short-term Memory 

Briefly forgetting about an appointment that you had, but remembering it later

From time to time, forgetting something that you have been told

Occasionally being unable to find things that you have misplaced (such as your glasses, phone, tv remote etc.) 

  • Forgetting close friends and family member’s names 
  • Repeatedly asking for the same information, for example, ‘where are we going for lunch?’
  • Continuously putting objects in strange places, such as putting the TV remote in the freezer

Planning & Making Decisions

  • Finding your reactions are a bit slower and taking longer to think things through 
  • Losing the ability to juggle multiple tasks at once, especially when there are distractions around 
  • Making wrong decisions from time to time
  • Occasionally making a mistake or two at work or when doing personal finances
  • Becoming extremely confused when trying to plan or thinking about something 
  • Finding it very difficult to concentrate
  • Having poor judgement when it comes to money or evaluating risks
  • Struggling to keep track of bills

Speech & Language

  • Struggling to find the right word on occasion
  • Having to concentrate more in order to keep up with a conversation
  • Losing track of the conversation if too many people are speaking at once
  • Frequently struggling to find the right word for a situation 
  • Struggling to follow or join a conversation
  • Regularly losing track of what someone is saying

Co-ordination

  • Getting confused about what day of the week it is, but working it out relatively quickly 
  • Going into a room and forgetting why you went there, but then figuring it out
  • Completely losing track of the day, week or month and the concept of time passing
  • Getting lost in a place that is familiar to you

Visual Perception

  • Changes to vision, such as misty or cloudy vision, which is most likely the result of cataracts or other changes in the eyes 
  • Having problems interpreting visuals, for example struggling to judge the distance between stairs or misinterpreting patterns

Mood & Behaviour

  • On occasion feeling worn down by work, family and social obligations
  • Feeling a bit low or anxious from time to time
  • Becoming completely withdrawn and losing interest in work or socialising 
  • Feeling uncharacteristically sad, anxious or frightened

For more information on this article, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Sue Silcox at Brain Sparks. You may also be interested in one of our previous articles ‘Dispelling 30 Myths About Dementia’.

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