The differences between normal aging and dementia

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If you are experiencing difficulties with memory, know that they may not be signs of dementia. It could be memory loss as a part of normal aging.

Group of seniors on an evening out together.

Please note that the information on this page should not be used as a diagnostic tool, is not a substitute for informed medical advice. If you are concerned that you or someone you know has dementia, please talk to your doctor.

What is aging?

Aging is a natural process of our lives. As we age, we experience gradual changes to our brains and bodies. Some of these changes affect our physical and mental abilities, and may increase our risk of disease.

Each one of us experiences aging differently. The extent of how we experience changes due to aging, and the point in our lives when they start becoming more noticeable, varies from person to person.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), each person should have the ability to live a long and healthy life. This is considered healthy aging.

What affects how I age?

Besides genetic factors, how we age depends on our lifestyles and environments.

Generally, we can support healthy aging by challenging our brains, eating healthily and being physically and socially active, among other lifestyle choices.

While these choices do not guarantee a long, healthy life free of disease, they're our best options for decreasing the risk of disease and ensuring our well-being as we age.

Here are some brain-healthy tips to help you preserve your memory as you age and reduce your risk of dementia.

Will my memory get worse as I age?

As we grow older, it's natural to feel concern about changes in our mental abilities. We want to carry out our daily routines, be self-sufficient and relive the most treasured moments of our lives – without having to worry about our memory and, in particular, dementia.

Most of us will experience no problems with memory

Most of us will continue to have strong memories as we age. Our ability to remember will not decline rapidly or substantively. In old age, we will retain the skills and knowledge learned throughout our lives.

Some of us will experience memory loss

Almost 40% of us will experience some form of memory loss after we turn 65 years old. But even if we experience memory loss, chances are still unlikely that we have dementia. For the most part, our memory loss is mild enough that we can still live our day-to-day lives without interruption.

A smaller percentage of us will have dementia

The WHO estimates that, after we turn 60 years old, 5 to 8% of us will live with dementia at some point. With dementia, symptoms including memory loss gradually worsen to the point where our abilities seriously deteriorate and we are no longer able to take care of ourselves.

Why is there such a difference in the percentage of people experiencing memory loss and the percentage of people living with dementia? To put it simply, there are different levels of memory loss – and not all memory loss is due to dementia. So how can you tell which is which?

The different levels of memory loss

Age-associated memory impairment

If you are experiencing difficulties with memory, but:

  • They are not noticeably disrupting your daily life,
  • They are not affecting your ability to complete tasks as you usually would,
  • You have no difficulty learning and remembering new things and
  • There's no underlying medical condition that is causing your memory problems,

Then you have what's known as age-associated memory impairment.

Age-associated memory impairment is considered to be a normal part of aging. It doesn't mean you have dementia.

Though you may have difficulties remembering things on occasion, like where you left your keys, a password for a website or the name of a former classmate, these are not signs you have dementia. You may not remember things as quickly as you used to, but most of the time there is no cause for concern.

Mild cognitive impairment

In between age-associated memory impairment and dementia, there is a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). As the name suggests, the symptoms of MCI are mild – you experience memory loss and other symptoms such as difficulty speaking and disorientation, but they are not so severe that they interfere with your normal daily functions and routines.

However, if you have MCI, you are also at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia than if you had age-associated memory impairment.

Learn more about MCI.

Dementia

When your memory loss is severe to the point where:

  • It's affecting your daily life and ability to stick to your normal routine,
  • You're finding it difficult to learn new things,
  • You're finding it difficult to complete tasks you're familiar with and
  • Others close to you are also starting to notice changes in your abilities,

Then your memory difficulties line up with what people commonly experience in the early stage of dementia.

However, the only way to know for sure if you have dementia is to talk to your doctor and get tested.

Compare the signs

Memory difficulties associated with normal aging and dementia can be told apart in a number of ways.

Below are some examples. This is not a diagnostic tool.

Signs of memory loss as a part of normal aging

  • You're unable to remember details of a conversation or event that took place a year ago.
  • You're unable to remember the name of an acquaintance.
  • You forget things and events occasionally.
  • You occasionally have difficulty finding words.
  • You are worried about your memory, but your friends and relatives are not.

Signs of dementia

  • You're unable to recall details of recent events or conversations.
  • You're unable to recognize or know the names of family members.
  • You forget things or events more frequently.
  • You have frequent pauses and substitutions when finding words.
  • Your friends and relatives are worried about your memory, but you are not aware of any problems.

There are other signs of dementia to look out for. Know the 10 warning signs of dementia.

More useful links and resources

https://archive.alzheimer.ca/sites/default/files/files/national/core-lit-brochures/memory-tips-and-tricks.pdf

Memory tips & tricks. The Alzheimer Society of Canada, 2018. If you are experiencing mild difficulties with memory, use this information sheet to find ideas and suggestions to help you manage memory loss. The strategies in this sheet are provided by people living with memory loss.

https://vimeo.com/77213314

I have trouble remembering things; does this mean I have dementia? FreeDem Films, 2013. This short, two-minute animation talks about the differences between signs of dementia and signs of memory loss as a normal part of aging. This video was created by Dr. Sabina Brennan of Trinity College Dublin and Trinity Brain Health. Permission to use this video was granted by Trinity Brain Health, which reserves all rights.

https://www.who.int/ageing/healthy-ageing/en/

What is healthy ageing? World Health Organization (WHO). Learn more about healthy aging and the factors that can support or detract from it.