What’s the Difference?: Age-Related Memory Loss vs. Dementia
Has your parent ever called you by the wrong name on accident?
If you have siblings, you most likely answered “yes” to that question, as Dad ran through the whole roster before settling on the right one.
A minor mistake when we’re children, being called the wrong name by our parent becomes much more troubling the older we get. You start to wonder—is it a slip of the tongue or an indication of something more serious?
Many adult children struggle with determining whether their senior parent’s memory loss is a normal part of aging or a sign of dementia. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning and behavioral abilities to the point that it interferes with a person’s daily life. In other words, it’s more than the usual memory loss that’s to be expected as we age.
One important thing to note—dementia is different from Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is not a disease; rather, it’s a group of symptoms that affect memory and cognitive ability. It can be a symptom of Alzheimer’s, but it can also be a result of something else.
Here’s how to tell the difference between normal memory loss and dementia, and what to do if you’re concerned about Mom or Dad.
Normal Aging Memory Loss vs Dementia
Memory problems don’t always indicate dementia. According to the National Institute on Aging, it’s perfectly natural to experience age-related memory loss.
“Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging. As people get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain,” they advise. “As a result, some people may notice that it takes longer to learn new things, they don’t remember information as well as they did, or they lose things like their glasses. These usually are signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems…”
So how do you tell the difference between normal memory loss due to aging and dementia symptoms? It’s not an exact science (and your parent’s physician can help give you more clarity), but the chart below can help give you an idea of what you’re up against.
|Normal Aging Memory Loss||Signs of Dementia|
|Making a bad decision||Consistently demonstrating poor decision-making skills|
|Forgetting what day it is||Forgetting what season it is|
|Searching for the right word to use in conversation||Struggling to maintain a conversation|
|Forgetting to pay a monthly bill||Experiencing problems with managing finances|
|Losing a commonly used item, like keys or glasses||Misplacing things frequently and being unable to locate them within the house|
|Forgetting the name of a recent acquaintance||Forgetting the name of a close friend or family member|
|Difficulty driving to a new location||Getting lost while driving in familiar places|
|Typical mood fluctuations consistent with their personality||Dramatic mood swings or changes in personality|
Signs of Dementia
According to the Mayo Clinic, common signs and symptoms of dementia include:
- Difficulty communicating or finding words.
- Difficulty reasoning or problem-solving.
- Difficulty handling complex tasks.
- Difficulty with planning and organizing.
- Difficulty with coordination and motor functions.
- Confusion and disorientation.
- Personality changes.
- Inappropriate behavior.
It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone will display the signs above. Dementia can manifest itself in different ways depending on the person and the root cause of their dementia. A doctor can help provide you and your parent with more clarity.
Memory Loss Related to Medical Conditions
Of course, it’s also possible that your parent is experiencing memory problems from something entirely different from dementia or age-related memory loss. There are several medical conditions that could be causing their recent fogginess.
According to the University of Michigan, these are some of the health conditions that can cause memory loss in older adults:
- Infections, such as a urinary tract infection, respiratory infection, or sepsis.
- Asthma or COPD.
- Cardiac problems.
- Problems from diabetes.
- Kidney or liver failure.
- Mental health problems, such as depression.
- Thyroid problems.
- Prescription medication side effects.
This is why it’s so important to encourage your parent to speak with their doctor if you notice them displaying memory loss. It could be dementia, in which case you’ll be able to form a plan with your parent for future care, or it could be a health condition that needs to be properly treated.
What to Do If You Think Your Parent Has Dementia
You notice that Mom keeps telling you things on the phone that she told you about just days before. Maybe you travel to visit your father over the summer and are greeted by him wearing a winter coat and greeting your son by the wrong name.
There’s no denying it anymore—something is wrong. You’re worried about their memory issues and decide it’s time to have a gentle conversation with them about your concerns. But how do you approach the conversation without hurting their feelings or making them defensive?
Here are some tips for having the conversation with your parent:
- Think about who is the best person to talk with them about it. Would it be easier coming from your sibling or another trusted family member or friend?
- Practice the conversation beforehand so you have an idea of what you’re going to say.
- Offer support.
- Anticipate that your parent may deny the problem.
The next step is to talk to your parent’s doctor. Encourage them to schedule a visit and offer to go along if they would like. Once you have answers, you can start evaluating their living options.
Perhaps it’s no longer best for their health if they remain at home. In that case, there are options available to you, including memory support in a Life Plan Community that offers a full continuum of care.
Remember, you do not have to carry this burden alone. Talk with health professionals and seek advice from senior living experts if you have questions or concerns.