Is it "Normal" Age-Related Memory Loss or is it Dementia?
Senility was a term often used to describe confusion and was believed to be a "normal" process of aging and memory loss. There have been many other colorful phrases to describe forgetfulness that we associate with getting older but perhaps one of the more frequently used is "senior moment" which, as many of us know, you do not have to be a senior to have a moment like that.
What is normal memory loss?
We now know that "senility" does not exist, the word that replaced it is dementia. Dementia is not a "normal" process of aging. So, what is normal as we age? Here are a few of the changes we can expect as we get older:1
- Muscles lose volume and stiffen;
- Heart does not pump as efficiently;
- Bones become less dense;
- Senses decline;
- Takes longer to learn and retrieve information;
- Need a calmer quieter environment.
These changes begin around age 30 which means, most of our adult lives are spent compensating for these subtle yet progressive changes. As you get older, you may notice that it takes longer to remember specific facts and, if there is a lot going on around you, it can be harder to concentrate and focus than when you were younger. That extra time and calm make a difference.2
Dementia is one of the best known, most used, and least understood terms when talking about memory loss. Dementia is also among the most important terms that we have a good understanding of because it is not a "normal" process of aging.
Dementia is not a disease, but rather it is the category of symptoms. This is an important distinction because we need to understand what is causing the symptoms. There are criteria for diagnosing dementia the first being, memory loss must be severe enough to interfere with a person's ability to carry out activities of daily living.3
Activities of daily living (ADLs) can include things like dressing, maintaining hygiene, eating properly, keeping track of time and appointments. The second criteria are that it has to affect at least 2 of the 4 core areas of thinking which are: 3
- Recent memory - often referred to as short-term memory.
- Language - how we understand and interpret written and spoken words.
- Executive function - safety awareness, the ability to plan and follow through on a task.
- Visuospatial function - having to do with how the brain interprets lines, symbols, maps, this is what helps us know where we are and how to get to where we want to go.
Categories of dementia
Neurodegenerative diseases, which are progressive. Degenerative means something is destroying the brain, and in most cases fatal. Alzheimer's disease is the most common disease that causes the symptoms of dementia. Followed by vascular dementia, Lewy body dementia, and among the least common are frontotemporal dementias.
There is also mixed dementia where a person can have a combination of two neurodegenerative diseases at the same time such as Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. This can be more difficult to diagnose as symptoms can often overlap.3
The second category is "other conditions" which are typically physical in nature including medications interaction/reaction, depression, vitamin deficiency (niacin, thiamin, and B12), tumors or infections, blood clots on the brain, dehydration, malnutrition, urinary tract infections, and metabolic imbalances can all cause memory issues. The reality is - there can be more than one cause of dementia and memory problems are not always caused by a disease like Alzheimer's, which is why getting an accurate diagnosis is so important.3,4
Advocate for yourself, your loved one
We have work to do as well. It is important to become an active, educated health advocate, certainly if you are a caregiver, but also for yourself. If you have a concern about your memory or your loved one, it is important to talk to your doctor.
Different strokes for different folks
As we have seen, memory issues can be caused by many different things and the only way to know is to begin the conversation with your doctor.
You are an equal partner in the healthcare relationship; no one knows you better than you do. Remember there is no such thing as "normal" age-related memory loss because we are all unique with our own memory strengths and weaknesses.
It is important to have a full assessment so that if you are experiencing the symptoms of dementia, you can know what you are working with and begin to put a plan in place. Tell us about your experience in the comments below, or share your story with the community.
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