By. Dr. Golnosh Sharafsaleh, MD
As a geriatrician, who specializes in memory disease I see patients almost daily for memory-related issues. Sometimes patients self-present to the memory clinic due to concerns that they may be developing dementia. Other times family members bring loved ones in due to problems that they are recognizing. In this post, I want to discuss some of the differences between normal changes with aging and abnormal signs of memory loss that need further evaluation by a medical professional.
Normal changes that occur as we age.
Dementia is not a normal part of aging; it is a disease process that needs routine follow-up and management. However, it is essential to recognize the normal aging process from dementia to know when a person needs professional help.
As we age, some of the expected changes that we experience include forgetting appointments or names but later remembering. Occasionally we may forget where we left an object or fail to perform a task, but later we remember. As we approach middle age and beyond, it may be more difficult to multitask. It may take longer to learn new information. We may walk into a room and forget why we walked in but later remember. We may react slower to a situation or get more frustrated when something is out of our routine. The point is that these are normal changes that occur with aging; we can still retain and learn new information. Our day-to-day function is not disrupted.
What changes in memory are not a normal part of the aging process?
When memory changes start to interfere with day-to-day function, this may be due to a memory disease and requires a professional medical evaluation. Some signs of memory loss that should signal alarm include losing the ability to learn new information, having difficulty with date and time, and forgetting recent events. For example, a person may completely forget a new appointment even if they are reminded of the event multiple times. Or they may ask the same questions repeatedly. A person may start to ask loved ones for assistance with tasks that they could manage independently in the past.
Problem-solving and planning out tasks become difficult for people who may have a memory disease. Familiar tasks become more challenging to manage, such as driving, using the phone, a television remote control, a stove, a microwave, organizing a grocery list, and getting lost going to familiar places. A person may misplace an object and unable to retrace their steps to find that object.
A sign of memory disease could include changes in mood or behavior. For example, a person may experience paranoia, accusing loved ones of taking their belonging. Or a person may start saying inappropriate things which were not their norm in the past. Sometimes a person may begin to withdraw and appear to feel overwhelmed in social situations.
Sometimes a person may have difficulty with speech. For example, a person may not remember a common word such as a chair, so in a conversation, they may say, "the thing you sit on." A person may also have difficulty interpreting what others are saying to them.
Another common sign of abnormal aging is having problems processing information about 3D objects. Making it particularly difficult to use the stairs, park a car, recognize objects. Sometimes a person may see something and interpret it as something else. For example, mistaking a driver's license for a credit card or mistaking a television remote for a phone.
A person with a memory disorder may start making poor decisions and develop poor safety awareness. For example, a tidy and organized person may no longer pay attention to keeping their home organized, or they may start hoarding. A person may stop paying attention to grooming, wear the same unwashed clothes daily.
What to do next?
I hope this post helps distinguish between normal versus abnormal signs of aging related to dementia. If you recognize abnormal signs of aging in yourself or a loved one, it is vital to seek help. The best place to start is your primary care provider. Depending on signs and symptoms, your provider may refer you for additional evaluation and care.
Geriatricians are particularly good at evaluating and treating patients for memory problems. Assessing patients for memory issues is a part of our training. Neurologists also see patients for memory problems. Cognitive psychologists can also evaluate patients who have memory problems.
Some memory specialists work at a dedicated memory clinic. You can ask your primary care provider to refer you to a memory clinic if one is near you. Memory clinics are generally staffed by geriatricians, neurologists, and cognitive psychologists.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Check out other posts by GeriAcademy.
This post was written by Dr. Golnosh Sharafsaleh, creator of GeriAcademy. Dr. Sharafsaleh is a board certified geriatrician and manages patients with dementia.