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Memory Loss: Dementia vs Normal Aging

Memory loss is difficult. In many cases, it’s normal – everyone forgets where they put the keys, and as we grow older that may become a little more common. But for adults at or near retirement age, memory loss could be more than just normal aging or an off day. It could also be an early sign of dementia.

Unfortunately, it can be tough to tell when lost car keys or mixed up words indicate normal aging and when they may be a sign of dementia-related memory loss. In normal aging, memory loss is sporadic and doesn’t unduly affect the individual’s lifestyle. Dementia, on the other hand, typically means memory loss that’s significant enough to interfere with normal life. So how can you tell which is which?

  • Call a grandson by his dad’s name once or twice? That’s probably normal memory loss or a slip of the tongue. Forget the children’s names altogether? That could signal dementia.
  • Miss one appointment? It happens to everyone. Missing many appointments or forgetting to make them could be a sign of more serious memory loss.
  • Need step-by-step directions to a new place? That’s normal. Getting lost in a familiar place is not.
  • Can’t find the right word? It happens to all of us. But someone who tells the same stories over and over in close repetition may be living with dementia.

Why We Lose Memory As We Age

About 40 percent of people older than 65 experience some memory loss, according to the Kessler Foundation. The percentage of people who say they experience memory troubles increases with age, but very few of those people actually experience dementia.

People lose memory as they get older for a variety of reasons. In most people, the hippocampus, which is that part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, shrinks modestly with age. Other areas of the brain may also lose volume, resulting in fewer brain cells to store memories. In addition:

  • Hormones and proteins that help store and retrieve memories from the brain may also diminish slightly as we get older.
  • The brain takes longer to repair itself from cellular damage than when it was younger.
  • Blood flow also grows less powerful over time, meaning that some parts of the brain may not be getting the nourishment they need to function properly.

Any or all of these reasons can contribute to normal memory loss.

Dementia accelerates normal memory loss through physical changes in the brain. Various types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, erode the hippocampus at a much faster rate than normal aging does. Vascular dementia means blood flow problems have caused widespread neurocellular death. And some reversible forms of dementia can occur due to vitamin deficiencies, reactions to medications or even adult-onset hydrocephalus. People who experience the brain changes associated with these factors will lose memory at a rate that impairs their ability to function in everyday life.

What Is Normal Memory Loss?

Normal memory loss differs markedly from dementia. A person experiencing normal age-related memory loss may lose the occasional word during conversation or experience slower reactions when doing something. They may find learning new information or skills takes longer than it used to. Becoming easily distracted or mixing up names are also typical of normal aging.

Not everyone loses memory as they age, though. Sometimes, people simply grow more aware of their typical forgetfulness because they are afraid that it signifies the onset of dementia. Many people retain sharp memories, usually due to long-time habits of exercising, not smoking, eating a plant-based diet, making positive social connections and regulating their emotions. Here are eight ways to keep your mind sharp as you age.

While healthy living can help prevent memory loss, many older adults still experience more forgetful moments than they did when they were younger. That isn’t usually cause for concern. It’s normal, and normal age-related memory loss doesn’t interfere with everyday life. Dementia, however, does.

What Are the Dementia Signs to Watch For?

People with dementia may or may not show signs of forgetfulness in the early stages of the disease. Dementia symptoms vary based on the underlying pathology that causes them. In some people, depression is the first sign that something is wrong. For others, it’s difficulty with everyday tasks, challenges with speaking or writing or confusion about time or place.

A person with early-stage dementia may also:

  • Have trouble traveling
  • Regularly misplace their wallet or purse
  • Have difficulty preparing even simple meals
  • Struggle to pay bills or manage finances
  • Experience unusual mood shifts
  • Go through personality changes

Sometimes, these symptoms signify a reversible form of dementia such as delirium, vitamin B deficiency, late-onset schizophrenia or reactions to certain medications. They may even indicate uncontrolled diabetes, brain injury or a brain tumor. Many of these illnesses are serious, but can be addressed by a doctor. Therefore, anyone experiencing consistent trouble with memory or decision-making skills should be evaluated by a medical professional as soon as possible.

Supportive Living for Dementia Care

People with dementia can pursue exceptional lives even with their disease. For many, receiving memory care in a supportive living environment can help maintain their overall wellness. By participating in enrichment programs that include physical therapy, healthy eating, appropriate exercise and intellectual engagement, most people with dementia can enjoy their days and feel good about their lives.

Memory loss doesn’t have to be scary. Some people with even normal age-related memory choose to move into a supportive community that offers engaging programs and perhaps some health or therapeutic services. Family or friends of people with normal age-related memory loss or dementia may help them select the right community, one which provides a safe and enjoyable environment that equips people to lead healthy lives. Whatever living choices people make, life can be rich and full of adventure in spite of moments of forgetfulness.

Memory Care at Spring Creek

Spring Creek is a supportive assisted living community that specializes in dementia care. Our memory care programs and holistic wellness philosophy make it easy for adults at any stage of dementia to live stronger lives. Contact us for more information on our community and how we can help individuals with dementia maximize their abilities.

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