The Truth About Aging and Dementia

Your body undergoes many changes with aging. Although there are some normal age-related changes, including in a person’s memory and thinking, dementia, or severe memory loss that interferes with daily life, is not part of the normal aging process. Learn what’s healthy aging and what’s not.

What is normal aging?

Signs of aging can start as young as age 30. The process of aging includes many changes in the body including:

elderly gentleman getting eye exam

Changes in vision are a normal part of aging

  • Heart and blood vessels: Stiffening of arteries and blood vessels makes the heart work harder. Physical activities such as walking long distances or walking uphill may become more difficult.
  • Bones: Bones shrink and reduce in density, making them more fragile and likely to break. Cartilage in joints may start wearing away, which can cause some pain or stiffness.
  • Muscles: Muscles lose strength, flexibility, and endurance over time. Muscle mass decreases 3-5% every decade after 30 years of age, and that rate increases over age 60.
  • Bladder and bowel: The ability for the bladder to stretch and then go back to its normal shape may be reduced. This may cause the bladder to hold less urine than before, resulting in more frequent trips to the bathroom. Changes in bowel can lead to constipation.
  • Skin: Skin loses elasticity too, resulting in wrinkles in some people. It also thins and becomes more delicate, making it easier to get bruises and cuts.
  • Vision: Changes in vision can include far-sightedness, a result of the hardening of the lens. Cataracts, a clouding of the lens in the eye that affects vision, may develop. This can cause blurry vision and ultimately blindness if not treated.
  • Mental health: Aging is a process with many changes, and it may take a little getting used to. Some people may be depressed, although others may have a sense of fulfillment and feel happy with their lives.
  • Memory and Thinking (Cognition): Normal aging may mean slower processing speeds and more difficulty with multitasking, but routine memory, skills, and knowledge are stable and may even improve with age. It’s normal to occasionally forget recent events such as where the keys were last placed or the name of the person you just met.

What is NOT normal aging?

elder man eating eggs

Needing help with everyday tasks can be a sign of dementia

Although there are some normal age-related changes in memory and thinking, confusion and memory loss that interfere with your daily life are not part of the normal aging process.

Dementia is a term for a collection of symptoms of cognitive decline including disruptions in language, memory, attention, recognition, problem solving, and decision-making that interferes with daily activities. Although 5.8 million people in the U.S. have dementia, it is not normal aging of the brain.

Other signs of dementia include:

  • not being able to complete tasks independently
  • difficulty with naming items or close family members
  • forgetting the function of items
  • repeating questions
  • taking much longer to complete customary tasks
  • misplacing items frequently
  • not being able to retrace steps and getting lost

Certain medical conditions and vitamin deficiencies, such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid)external icon, normal pressure hydrocephalusexternal icon (a neurological condition caused by the build-up of fluid in the brain), infections, and Vitamin B12 deficiency, can mimic dementia symptoms. Additionally, some prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause dementia-like symptoms too. If you are experiencing these symptoms, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider to find out if there are any underlying causes for these symptoms.

For more information, go to our “What Is Dementia” page.

Elderly patient speaking with a doctor

Discussing memory loss with a healthcare provider can help reduce risk

Risk reduction and a healthy brain

There currently is no cure for dementia, however, there are medications to help with the symptoms. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Chronic disease prevention:
    • If you are a smoker, stop smoking.
    • Maintain a healthy blood pressure level.
    • Manage cholesterol levels with exercise and, if needed, cholesterol medications.
    • Keep blood sugar within a healthy range.
    • Get to and maintain a healthy weight.
    • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation‒up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
  • Reduce hazards in your environment that could lead to falls or head injury.
  • Healthy living:
    • Eat whole foods with plenty of nutrients and vitamins.
    • Exercise, including aerobic physical activity.
    • Get good quality sleep.
  • Keep your mind active and stimulated, with challenging tasks such as learning a new activity.
  • Maintain social contacts.

Be empowered to discuss memory problems

More than half of people with memory loss have not talked to their healthcare provider, but that doesn’t have to be you. Get comfortable with starting a dialogue with your medical provider if you observe any changes in memory or an increase in confusion, or just if you have any questions. You can also discuss health care planning, management of chronic conditions, and caregiving needs.

For more information go to the Alzheimer’s information page.

Reference

Alzheimer’s Association. 2019 Alzheimer’s disease facts and figures. Alzheimers Dement 2019;1:321-87external icon