How to Decide If a Loved One Has Dementia vs Normal Aging

How to Decide If a Loved One Has Dementia vs Normal Aging

Watching a loved one's capabilities decline can be tough, but how do you know whether it's normal aging vs dementia? At the Long Island Alzheimer's & Dementia Center, one of the most common concerns we address is whether a loved one is dealing with early-stage dementia or normal aging. 

While everyone is different and each individual's situation can vary, we've outlined a few key points on the topic to ideally provide clarity. Let's take a closer look at dementia vs the normal aging process. 

The Normal Aging Process

Time is something we all have to contend with; and if we are fortunate enough, we get to age. Signs of aging can begin as early as 30 and can vary from person to person. Aging can impact almost every aspect of one's being. Some of the most common signs of aging include the following. 

Bone Density Reduction

As you age, your bones will shrink and reduce in density, which makes them more fragile and susceptible to breakage. The cartilage in your joints may also begin wearing away, which can lead to stiffness and pain. 

Pulmonary Changes 

Stiffening of the blood vessels and arteries can make the heart work harder. This can lead to physical activities, such as walking uphill or walking long distances can become more challenging. 

Bowel and Bladder Changes

With age, the bladder loses its elasticity, which may cause it to hold less urine than previously. This can lead to more trips to the bathroom, while changes in the bowel can lead to fewer trips or constipation. 

Muscle Loss

Every decade after the age of 30, muscle mass will decrease 3 to 5%, and this rate increases once an individual is over the age of 60. In either case, muscles lose flexibility, strength, and endurance over time.

Changes in Vision

As we age, the lens in the eye is likely to harden, which leads to far-sightedness development. In addition, cataracts cause blurred vision and can lead to blindness if left untreated. 

Skin Changes

One of the most visible changes associated with aging is the loss of skin elasticity, which causes wrinkles. At the same time, the skin becomes more delicate and thin, making it easier to bruise. 

Mental Health Changes

Aging can cause different results in different people. While some may be depressed while adapting to the changes, others may experience a sense of fulfillment. 

Cognitive Changes Associated with Aging 

In general, the normal aging process can lead to difficulty with multitasking and slower processing speeds. However, routine memory, knowledge, and skills are often stable or may even improve with age. It's completely normal to forget recent events— because we all do it — such as where the keys were placed last or the name of someone recently introduced. 

What Is Dementia? 

Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not a single disease. Dementia is a broad term used for a specific set of conditions and diseases characterized by a decline in problem-solving, language, and — most notably — memory. Dementia can also negatively impact an individual's ability to complete normal, everyday activities. There are several types of dementia. Some of the most popular forms of dementia include: 

  • Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. This progressive, irreversible brain disorder slowly deteriorates an individual's memory skills and thinking skills. It can eventually lead to the individual being unable to perform simple tasks.
  • Lewy Body Dementia can lead to problems with movement, mood, behavior, and thinking. Individuals with this condition often share similar symptoms as those with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
  • Frontotemporal dementia is a term used to describe multiple types of dementia that can impact the front and side parts of the brain — the areas responsible for moderating language and behavior.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS) can cause double vision, loss of muscle coordination, and other physical symptoms. When the physical symptoms of Wernicke's disease end, the signs of Korsakoff syndrome will appear, which may include complications processing information, learning new skills, remembering things, and other dementia-like symptoms.
  • Normal-pressure hydrocephalus can cause complications walking, short-term memory loss, confusion, changes in mood, forgetfulness, trouble paying attention, lack of interest in daily activities, incontinence, and other symptoms.
  • Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia. The most common early signs are confusion and disorientation; while concentration problems or complications completing tasks can appear in the later stages.
  • Parkinson's disease is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that may affect movement, such as tremors in one hand.
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is a fatal degenerative brain disorder. Early symptoms may include visual disturbances, poor coordination, behavioral changes, and memory problems. Later symptoms include blindness, dementia, coma, weakness, and involuntary movements.
  • Huntington's disease can deteriorate a person's mental and physical abilities.
  • Post cortical atrophy (PCA) — also recognized as Benson's syndrome — typically impacts the rear portion of the brain that is responsible for spatial perception, spelling, complex visual processing, and calculation.

Dementia vs Normal Aging Process

The problem with determining whether it's dementia vs normal aging is that many types of dementia may mirror known aging effects. However, normal age-related declines are usually subtle and will primarily impact the speed of thinking and attentional control. With abnormal aging or dementia, declines are much more severe and can include complications with other thinking abilities, such as

  • Problems navigating,
  • Rapid forgetting,
  • Difficulty solving common problems,
  • Behaving outside of social norms,
  • Problems expressing oneself,
  • Excessing falls or tripping, and
  • Tremors.

Normal Aging vs Alzheimer's Disease Chart

The National Institute of Health's National Institute on Aging has published a comparison chart that highlights normal aging vs Alzheimer's disease. 

Alzheimer's Disease

Normal Aging

Making poor decisions and judgment most of the time

Making poor decisions from time to time

Failing to take care of monthly bills

Missing a monthly payment

Losing track of the time of year or date

Forgetting what day it is and then later remembering it

Problems having a conversation

Sometimes forgetting which word to use

When Should I Speak to My Doctor About Dementia vs Normal Aging? 

 If you are concerned about your or a loved one's health, it's imperative to speak to a doctor. Medical professionals specialize in diagnosing different types of dementia and should be your primary source of information and guidance. 

He or she may run different tests, suggest regular checkups, or refer to a specialist to further investigate what may be causing the symptoms. Some memory and thinking problems can have causes, such as an infection, depression, or side effects from medication. 

Contact the Long Island Alzheimer's and Dementia Center 

At the Long Island Alzheimer's & Dementia Center, we help individuals and families impacted by Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. We offer a range of hands-on solutions based on providing respite for caregivers and offering stimulating programs for those living with dementia. Contact the Long Island Alzheimer's & Dementia Center by calling (516) 767-6856.

About the Author Long Island Alzheimer's and Dementia Center

At the Long Island Alzheimer's and Dementia Center, our mission is to improve the quality of life for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and related forms of dementia, and their caregivers. We actively work to achieve this mission through research-based programming for all stages of Alzheimer’s, Caregiver Support Groups, in-home respite solutions, transportation options, and additional services.

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Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease or dementia?