The Aging Brain: What’s Normal and What’s Not?

In 2014, there were 46.2 million Americans over the age of 65, which represents about 14.5% of the U.S. population. By 2040, this number is expected to rise to over 81 million, and by 2060, almost 100 million. With this significant increase in the aging population comes a growing concern about the prevention and treatment of age-related diseases. One, if not the most, notable of these diseases is dementia, due to the impact it has not only on the person with the disease, but also to their spouses, children, and to the healthcare system as a whole.

By: Shannon Haragan, LPC

By: Shannon Haragan, LPC

How Do I Know if it’s Normal Aging or Early Signs of Dementia?

In the not-too-distant past, researchers believed that the brain only developed and built connections during our early years, after which, development stopped, and the rest of our lives were spent losing brain cells. Now we know that the brain can continue to generate cells and build connections throughout our life span–we call this neuroplasticity. If we keep our bodies and our minds engaged and active, we can have a healthy brain throughout our lifetime. Here is an example of truly healthy aging, at age 106, who got to dance with the President and the First Lady

Similar to any muscle in our body, however, we can apply the age-old “use it or lose it” principle to the brain, as well. As we age, we tend to naturally slow down both physically and mentally. We tend to engage less with things that are mentally and cognitively challenging. Our minds follow suit, and as a result, we may naturally experience memory lapses from time to time. So some memory loss is considered normal. But how much? What if you forget where you left your keys? Call your granddaughter by your sister’s name? Walk into a room and forget why you walked in there in the first place? Here are a few guidelines for what’s normal and what’s not:

             Normal Aging                      Signs of Dementia
Preserved independence in daily activitiesCritical dependence on others for key daily living activities
The individual is more concerned about alleged forgetfulness than close family members areClose family members are much more concerned about incidents of memory loss than the individual
The person complains of memory loss but can provide considerable detail regarding incidents of forgetfulnessThe person complains of memory problems only if specifically asked; cannot recall instances where memory loss was noticeable
Recent memory for important events, affairs, and conversations is not impairedRecent memory for events and ability to converse are both noticeably impaired
Occasional word-finding difficultiesFrequent word-finding pauses and substitutions
Person does not get lost in familiar territory; may have to pause momentarily to remember wayPerson gets lost in familiar territory while walking or driving; may take hours to return home
Individual operates common appliances even if unwilling to learn how to operate new devicesPerson cannot operate common appliances; unable to learn to operate even simple new appliances
No decline in interpersonal social skillsLoss of interest in social activities; socially inappropriate behaviors
Normal performance on mental status examinations, relative to the individual’s education and cultureBelow-normal performance on mental status examinations in ways not accounted for by educational or cultural factors
Source: Diagnosis, Management and Treatment of Dementia: A Practical Guide for Primary Care Physicians (American Medical Association)

 

There are many different causes of dementia (Alzheimer’s is the most common), but the way the symptoms present is different for everybody. If you have a concern for yourself or a family member, talk with your primary care doctor or a neurologist. If you’re struggling with anxiety, worry or grief around a potential diagnosis, a therapist can be helpful. Though the funding is currently lacking compared to other diseases such as cancer and heart disease, important research is currently ongoing, and there is great hope for finding effective treatments to combat Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia in the not-too-distant future. For more information, check out the Alzheimer’s Association or more info about dementia.