As the years go by, you might notice changes in yourself or a loved one. Maybe things like misplacing keys or a phone, struggling to find the right word or remembering why you walked into a room seem to keep happening. And you’re wondering: Are these issues just part of normal aging? Or could they be signs of something more serious?
“As we age, we can expect changes in things like attention, processing speed and learning. But while they can be annoying, they are not interfering with day-to-day life,” said Heather Mulder, associate director of outreach programs with Banner Alzheimer’s Institute.
For example, many people notice problems remembering information or details. But that doesn’t always mean cognitive decline is to blame. Losing your car in a parking lot might seem like a short-term memory issue. “But did you actually pay attention to where you left it? Or were you talking on the phone or going over your to-do list while you walked away? You didn’t even allow your memory to save the information, because you didn’t pay attention in the first place,” Mulder said.
It’s important to know the difference between what’s normal and what could be a sign of dementia. In either case, you can take steps to minimize the impact on your quality of life.
How can you tell the difference?
Here are nine areas where you might wonder how to tell the difference between aging and something more serious:
1. Memory changes
Normal aging: It’s common to occasionally misplace things or forget names and remember them later as you get older. Everyone has trouble remembering things now and then.
More troublesome: Significant memory loss, forgetting recent events like what you ate for lunch and struggling to recall familiar faces or places may be problems for people with dementia. “If you forget to pick up a gallon of milk at the grocery store, that’s annoying. But if you head off to the grocery store and end up at every retail outlet but the grocery store, that’s causing a problem and should be discussed with your medical provider,” Mulder said.
2. Language and communication
Normal aging: You might not be able to come up with the exact word you want once in a while. You could feel like it’s “on the tip of your tongue.” But you can still carry on conversations.
More troublesome: You often have times when you can’t find the right word. You repeat phrases, and you struggle to follow or take part in conversations. You may ask the same questions or repeat the same stories.
3. Problem-solving and decision-making
Normal aging: You find it takes you longer to make decisions or solve problems than it used to. But you can still manage your daily tasks.
More troublesome: You can’t make decisions, solve problems or handle routine tasks. Or, if you can do these things, it’s very difficult or you can’t do them to the same standard as you could in the past.
4. Independence and functioning
Normal aging: You can clean your home (as long as you don’t have problems like arthritis), pay your bills, take your medicine and generally do what you need to do to take care of yourself without much help.
More troublesome: You need help with your daily activities.
5. Knowing the time and place
Normal aging: You might forget what day of the week it is sometimes. But, for the most part, you know the day and month and where you are.
More troublesome: You may not know where you are or even what year it is.
6. Personality and behavior changes
Normal aging: Your personality may shift a little bit. You might notice that this change happens in response to facing life’s challenges.
More troublesome: Drastic shifts in personality, mood swings, irritability or uncharacteristic behaviors could be signs of dementia. “We expect people to stay consistent with who they’ve always been. Extroverts stay extroverted, and introverts stay introverted. But if you start to notice big changes in who a person has always been, it should raise a red flag,” Mulder said.
7. Social interactions
Normal aging: While you might have changes in your social circles, you adapt to them, maintain your relationships and spend time with other people. These connections are vital. Research shows that having little or no contact with others is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
More troublesome: You may have trouble recognizing familiar faces or taking part in conversations. You may withdraw from interactions with other people.
8. Awareness of changes
Normal aging: In general, you notice changes in yourself and you find ways to adapt to them.
More troublesome: You’re not very aware of your decline. Other people may point out changes, but you may deny them.
9. What’s happening over time
Normal aging: You may notice gradual changes, but they don’t have a big effect on what you can do and they only happen once in a while.
More troublesome: Problems happen more frequently. Something that used to happen once a month becomes weekly, then daily, then many times a day.
What to do if you notice signs of normal aging
Even if you think the changes you’re noticing are typical, consulting a health care provider for assessments and guidance is still a good idea, especially if you’re over age 65. Your provider can evaluate your baseline so they can watch for changes over time. Seeing your doctor regularly can also help you maintain your overall health and watch for any signs of problems.
You can also take steps to overcome the challenges of age-related changes in your memory and thinking. Here are a few to try:
- Be mindful. Have a place for everything and put everything in its place. When you set down your keys, phone or wallet, say out loud where that place is.
- Read, write, attend lectures and solve puzzles.
- Learn new things, like a language, hobby or musical instrument.
- Stay active. Exercise or get some physical activity most days of the week.
- Join a book group or movie club. You’ll get social interaction and you’ll need to remember things you would like to discuss.
- If you don’t feel you spend enough time with friends and family, schedule more activities, attend a senior center, volunteer or join groups of people who share your interests.
And one thing not to try? Supplements. There aren’t any supplements proven to boost your memory or brain health.
What to do if you notice signs of something more serious
If you see symptoms of dementia in yourself or a family member, schedule an appointment with a health care provider. “If there has been a change in personality, behavior or how you spend your time, or if changes are interfering with your day-to-day activities, you should seek medical care,” Mulder said.
While troublesome signs could point to dementia, they could also be caused by medication interactions, hearing loss or other health problems. And early diagnosis and care are vital for managing Alzheimer’s disease, Lewy body dementia and other forms of dementia.
If you or a loved one have problems with thinking or memory, these tips can help:
- Create a daily routine
- Limit clutter
- Use lists and notes to help you stay focused and complete your tasks
- Keep track of your activities with a calendar or cell phone
- Get regular physical activity
- Schedule social interactions
- Stay engaged with activities that are meaningful for you
- Take good care of your overall health
- Make sure you’re getting enough restorative sleep
- Share your experiences with family, friends and your health care team and count on them to be by your side
The bottom line
It can be challenging to know whether changes in your memory or thinking are normal signs of aging or something more serious. Some memory lapses are typical as you get older, while others are concerning. If you’re worried about brain health for yourself or a loved one, reach out to Banner Health to connect with an expert who can check for issues and offer guidance.