Like other parts of our body, our brains experience changes in function as we grow older. While everyone will encounter some form or degree of cognitive decline as they age, there are differences between normal cognitive aging and the onset of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Though each dementia case is different, there are common warning signs that we should be aware of. Early disease recognition is important in helping people receive the care and assistance they need to maintain a fruitful life and prevent accidents.
There are a lot of misconceptions about cognitive aging, the way our brain works and how things should or should not happen as we get older. We will look at a few common cases here to serve as examples in pinpointing the difference between the effects of normal brain aging and neurocognitive disease.
Memory loss: Memories do indeed fade, but it’s important to remember that cognitive health entails much more than retaining a strong memory. It’s normal, for instance, for an older citizen to have trouble occasionally remembering names or where they have left their cell phone or car keys. It’s when this behavior becomes regular, or more severe—like having trouble remembering very familiar names or important recent events—that we should pay closer attention to see if this is a sign of dementia.
Disorientation: Entering a room and forgetting why you went there, or forgetting what day of the week it is are unfortunate but commonplace occurrences as we get older. However, if someone is getting lost on their own street, or forgetting where they live, these could be indicators that something more serious is at play.
Difficulty with Daily Activities: As we get older, we increasingly need help with tasks, whether it’s from a family member, aide or adult living facility. Needing assistance with a television, for example, is normal. This is not in itself cause for concern. Things become more problematic if an individual needs help with easy, everyday tasks like getting dressed or placing a phone call.
Changes in Mood and Personality: Our bodies do not perform the same as we get older and this can lead to frustration, fatigue, or irritability. If these behaviors become more extreme however, and an individual becomes increasingly suspicious, agitated, withdrawn or disinterested, it is possible they are experiencing a form of dementia.
These tips are not meant to be alarming but rather to keep us aware of what is going on with our loved ones as they enter old age and adjust to the changes in their bodies and brains. Being aware of early warning signs can prevent our loved ones from harm and help to deliver them the assistance they deserve. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, or are concerned about changes in memory, behavior, thinking or movement in yourself or a family member, contact your primary care provider for further advice and diagnosis.