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How to Differentiate between Natural Aging and Dementia

natural-aging-vs-dementia-150x150Aging is a natural part of life; though it impacts everyone differently, all of us will eventually age, regardless of culture, gender, etc.  According to Harvard Medical School, normal forgetfulness may be the result of changes in the brain caused by a loss of receptors on brain cells and a decline in certain neurotransmitters as we progress through our 50s and beyond. Read on to better understand if the changes you are seeing in yourself or a loved one are signs of natural aging or something more.

Early detection of dementia, while important, can be difficult. It is often challenging because memory problems due to dementia can be confused with stress-induced memory problems. Did you know that short term memory loss is one of the primary symptoms of stress? And it seems that the more stress there is in your life, the worse your memory becomes. Stress directly impacts one’s ability to engage in new learning and the remembering of new information. Many people dismiss forgetfulness, an early warning sign of dementia, understandably thinking that stress is to blame.

Lanny Butler, MS, OTR, and developer of Dementia Possible Care©, a practical approach to caring for individuals with dementia, states that when evaluating a patient, “We always have to rule out stress first. So, often times the problem is with stress, you have problems with your learning, structured memory loss. Those are the number one and number two characteristics for all forms of dementia, but they are also the number one and number two [characteristics] for stress. So, we’re going to rule that out first.”

The following table offers general differences between normal aging or stress and dementia.

Normal aging or stressDementia
Preserved independence in daily activitiesCritical dependence on others for key daily living activities
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
The individual is more concerned about alleged forgetfulness than close family members are

Close family members are much more concerned about incidents of memory loss than the individual

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).

Butler also recommends, “Never take change as though it’s nothing. Check it out. So the moment that you think something is not feeling right, check it out. We have drugs that slow the progression [of dementia].  We don’t have a cure for dementia.”

If you are concerned about you or your loved one’s memory, talk with your primary care physician. He or she may be able to rule out other causes for memory loss.

If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with dementia, you can take advantage of specialty home care offerings like Residential Home Health’s MindCare program; they are customized to meet the unique needs of each patient and caregiver at any stage of dementia. In-home dementia care programs are essential because, as Butler explains, “[With dementia,] residual memories remain intact. As a whole, almost no new learning is possible mid-stage six on but, your residual memories are always there. And because [patients have] resided in a home for fifty, sixty years, they know where everything is, and they’re pretty much independent in the home. Therefore we have a leg up in home health. We see [patients] in their natural environment, and we can change the environment to make it more conducive to maintain all of those skills like walking, talking, [and] having a continent bound bladder.”

Find out more about Residential Home Health’s dementia care program, MindCare, and how it uses a clinical team approach including medical social workers, registered nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists as needed to provide the following:

  • Caregiver support and education
  • Strategies for living with dementia
  • Safety considerations

Call today to talk with a nurse about your specific situation at 248-524-6434.