The Difference Between Age-Related Memory Loss And Alzheimer’s Disease

When you begin to notice changes in an aging parent’s mental or physical well-being, it is difficult to determine if these are the normal signs of advancing age, or symptoms of Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

Forgetfulness is common — but there is a point when forgetfulness is more concerning, especially in older adults. Of course, it is not uncommon for people over 65-years-old to experience some memory loss on occasion. This memory loss, which is not caused by a medical condition, is called “age-associated memory impairment”. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that around 40 percent of people over the age of 65 experience this memory loss, whereas Alzheimer’s and other dementias are considered brain diseases that can cause significant memory loss.

As we begin to notice changes in an aging parent’s mental or physical well-being, it can leave them worrying and wondering about what might be wrong. Most aren’t sure if what they are witnessing is the normal signs of advancing age or symptoms of something more serious, like Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. It can be difficult to tell the difference.

Some behaviors are recognized as the classic early signs of Alzheimer’s—but there are other medical conditions that closely mimic the disease. If you find yourself unsure about your senior loved one’s health, it can help to learn more about the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia, as well as other illnesses that can sometimes look like dementia.

And while it is inevitable that our brains change as we age, experiencing major memory problems is not a normal sign of growing older. Age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease might seem similar, but there are a number of signs and symptoms that can help you tell one from the other.

Thus if you’re concerned about your aging parent and believe forgetfulness may be escalating to dementia, it’s important to have a better understanding between the two.

Normal Forgetfulness vs. Dementia

The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is if memory lapses have little impact on your daily performance and ability to do what you want to do. Dementia, on the other hand, is marked by a persistent, disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgment, and abstract thinking. For most people, occasional lapses in memory are a normal part of the aging process, not a warning sign of serious mental deterioration or the onset of dementia.

Examples Of Age-Related Forgetfulness

Forgetfulness is a common complaint among many of us as we get older. The following types of memory lapses are normal among older adults and generally are not considered warning signs of dementia:

  • Occasionally forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys.
  • Forgetting names of acquaintances or blocking one memory with a similar one, such as calling a grandson by your son’s name.
  • Occasionally forgetting an appointment or walking into a room and forgetting why you entered.
  • Becoming easily distracted or having trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or the details of a conversation.
  • Not quite being able to retrieve information you have “on the tip of your tongue.”

Memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process, and the brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age, so significant memory loss is not an inevitable result of aging.  Your lifestyle, habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of your brain. And while memory lapses can be frustrating, most of the time they aren’t cause for concern.  Furthermore, age-related memory changes are not the same thing as dementia.

As we grow older, we experience physiological changes in brain functions, and it takes longer to learn and recall information.  While we often mistake this slowing of our mental processes for true memory loss, in fact in most cases if we give ourselves time, the information will come to mind.

Tips To Help With Age-Related Memory Loss

Whatever your age, there are many ways you can improve your cognitive skills and prevent memory loss:

  • Create a routine that you can follow daily.
  • Use organizers, planners or calendars. Anything to help you stay on track and stick to your routine.
  • Involve your senses. Trying using scents or visuals to help you remember and associate things.
  • Get a sufficient amount of sleep

Causes Of Age-Related Memory Loss

  • The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates with age.
  • Hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth also decline with age.
  • Older people often experience decreased blood flow to the brain, which can impair memory and lead to changes in cognitive skills.

Reversible Causes Of Memory Loss

It’s important to remember that memory loss doesn’t automatically mean that you have dementia. There are many other reasons why you may be experiencing cognitive problems, including stress, depression, and even vitamin deficiencies. That’s why it’s so important to go to a doctor to get an official diagnosis if you’re experiencing problems. Sometimes, even what looks like significant memory loss can be caused by treatable conditions and reversible external factors, such as:

  1. Depression. Depression can mimic the signs of memory loss, making it hard for you to concentrate, stay organized, remember things, and get stuff done. Depression is a common problem in older adults—especially if you’ve recently experienced a number of important losses or major life changes (retirement, a serious medical diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, moving out of your home).
  2. Vitamin B12 Deficiency. Vitamin B12 protects neurons and is vital to healthy brain functioning. In fact, a lack of B12 can cause permanent damage to the brain. Older people have a slower nutritional absorption rate, which can make it difficult for you to get the B12 your mind and body need. Treatment is available in the form of a monthly injection.
  3. Thyroid Problems. The thyroid gland controls metabolism: if your metabolism is too fast, you may feel confused, and if it’s too slow, you can feel sluggish and depressed. Thyroid problems can cause memory problems such as forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. Medication can reverse the symptoms.
  4. Alcohol Abuse. Excessive alcohol intake is toxic to brain cells, and alcohol abuse leads to memory loss. Because of the damaging effects of excessive drinking, experts advise limiting your daily intake to just 1-2 drinks.
  5. Dehydration. Older adults are particularly susceptible to dehydration. Severe dehydration can cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, and other symptoms that look like dementia. It’s important to stay hydrated, especially if you take diuretics or suffer from diabetes or high blood sugar.
  6. Side Effects Of Medication. Many prescribed and over-the-counter drugs or combinations of drugs can cause cognitive problems and memory loss as a side effect. This is especially common in older adults because they break down and absorb medication more slowly. Common medications that affect memory and brain function include sleeping pills, antihistamines, blood pressure and arthritis medication, muscle relaxants, anticholinergic drugs for urinary incontinence and gastrointestinal discomfort, antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and painkillers.

Recognizing The Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s And Dementia

When memory loss becomes so pervasive and severe that it disrupts your work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, you may be experiencing the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, or another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.

While forgetfulness is the most common symptom associated with dementia, it’s certainly not the only sign of the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the symptoms of dementia go beyond memory loss -your loved one may experience difficulty communicating, focusing, reasoning and more. Examples may include:

  • Inability to solve problems including working with numbers, or taking care of monthly bills, becomes more difficult.
  • Issues completing everyday tasks such as driving, playing a game or working, which now seem impossible to complete.
  • Feeling confused about time or location such as losing track of time and becoming confused about where he or she is, in places like the grocery store or at the park.
  • Inability to engage in conversation andhaving trouble engaging in spoken or written conversation.
  • Poor judgment making regarding things such as walking outside on a snowy, cold day without a jacket.
  • Change in personality  and acting more fearful, anxious, depressed or suspicious than usual can be a sign of dementia, as well as withdrawing from social groups, religious organizations, or favorite pastimes
  • Becoming easily distracted while reading something or while in deep conversation
  • Forgetting to attend an appointment that was scheduled weeks in advance
  • Accidentally mixing up family members’ names, or calling an acquaintance by the wrong name.
  • Misplacing things around the home such as keys, remote control, wallet
  • Confusion about the day of the week or time of day
  • Getting lost going to and from a familiar location
  • Forgetting to eat and unintended weight loss

If you’re concerned about your parent’s overall well-being, schedule an appointment with the doctor. He or she will give you a better understanding of exactly what your loved one is going through and if there’s any progression in memory loss.

What To Expect When You See Your Doctor For Memory Loss

It’s time to consult a doctor when memory lapses become frequent enough or sufficiently noticeable to concern you or a family member. If you get to that point, make an appointment as soon as possible to talk with a primary physician to have a thorough physical examination. Your doctor can assess your personal risk factors, evaluate your symptoms, eliminate reversible causes of memory loss, and help obtain appropriate care. Early diagnosis can treat reversible causes of memory loss, or improve the quality of life in Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

The doctor also will want to know what medications you’re taking, how you’ve been eating and sleeping, whether you’ve been depressed or stressed lately, and other questions about what’s been happening in your life. Chances are the doctor will also ask you or your partner to keep track of your symptoms and check back in a few months. If your memory problem needs more evaluation, your doctor may send you to a neuropsychologist.

If a senior’s primary care physician rules out all of the above health conditions, they may refer the older adult to a neurologist for further evaluation. While there isn’t any one definitive test for dementia, a neurologist has their own protocol for making a diagnosis. This can include ordering brain imaging tests, such as a CT scan, an MRI, or a PET scan.

Memory Care At Unicity Healthcare

Unicity Healthcare takes an individualized approach to caring for adults with Alzheimer’s or Dementia. We understand that no two clients are the same, and, as such, we develop an individualized service plan, incorporating all aspects of the person’s life and family. There are several steps to our process, and each is important in creating the Unicity Homecare approach, one that stresses personalization, dedication and quality care.

All our staffs undergo regular training sessions on Alzheimer’s and other form of dementia related disease. Our Care Managers are dementia experts/ practitioners and they have significant experience dealing with Alzheimer’s clients and their family. Our in depth care assessments are customized and include, among several other cognitive tests, an interpretation of Folstein’s Mini-Mental State Exam. Safety being a major concern when dealing with Alzheimer’s people at home, our assessment includes a review of the elderly’s home environment. Because the person may experience changes in judgment, orientation to time and place, behavior and senses, our Care Managers make sure the home environment is safe and supportive.


We’re Here To Help

When the time comes to consider home care for your loved one, you may seek help from Unicity’s qualified home care professionals to help ease the burden.

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