The Truth About Aging and Dementia

As we age, our brains change, but Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are not an inevitable part of aging. In fact, up to 40% of dementia cases may be prevented or delayed. It helps to understand what’s normal and what’s not when it comes to brain health.

Normal brain aging may mean slower processing speeds and more trouble 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 you put your keys or the name of the person you just met.

When It Might Be Dementia

In the United States, 6.2 million people age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia. People with dementia have symptoms of cognitive decline that interfere with daily life—including disruptions in language, memory, attention, recognition, problem solving, and decision-making. Signs to watch for include:

Older couple enjoying time together

Alzheimer's disease or related dementias are not an inevitable part of aging. There are 7 ways to help maintain your brain health.

  • Not being able to complete tasks without help.
  • Trouble naming items or close family members.
  • Forgetting the function of items.
  • Repeating questions.
  • Taking much longer to complete normal tasks.
  • Misplacing items often.
  • Being unable to retrace steps and getting lost.

If you have one or more of the 10 warning signs, please see your health care provider. Early diagnosis gives you the best chance to seek treatment and time to plan for the future.

7 Ways to Help Maintain Your Brain Health

Studies show that healthy behaviors, which can prevent some kinds of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease may also reduce your risk for cognitive decline. Although age, genetics, and family history can’t be changed, the Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention, and careexternal icon suggests that addressing risk factors may prevent or delay up to 40% of dementia cases.

Here’s what you can do:

Older woman having her blood pressure checked.

High blood pressure may increase your risk of dementia.

  1. Quit smoking. Quitting smoking now may help maintain brain health and can reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, lung disease, and other smoking-related illnesses. Free quitline: 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669
  2. Maintain a healthy blood pressure level. Tens of millions of American adults have high blood pressure, and many do not have it under control. Learn the facts.
  3. Be physically active. CDC studies show physical activity can improve thinking, reduce risk of depression and anxiety and help you sleep better. Here are tips to help you get started.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight. Healthy weight isn’t about short-term dietary changes. Instead, it’s about a lifestyle that includes healthy eating and regular physical activity.
  5. Get enough sleep. A third of American adults report that they usually get less sleep than the recommended amount. How much sleep do you need? It depends on your age.
  6. Stay engaged. There are many ways for older adults to get involved in their community.
  7. Manage blood sugar. Learn how to manage your blood sugar especially if you have diabetes.
Conditions That Can Mimic Dementia

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

For more information, see What Is Dementia?

What To Do if a Loved One is Showing Symptoms
  • Talk with your loved one about seeing a health care provider if they are experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s dementia to get a brain health check up.
  • When the timing is right, talk about issues related to safety including driving and carrying identification. Symptoms of dementia include getting lost in familiar places, difficulty judging distance, determining color or contrast, and reading which can make driving especially difficult.
  • Help your loved one start gathering important documents such as their advanced health care directive or living will, durable power of attorney for health care, and financial or estate planning documents. CDC has a Care Planning Form pdf icon[PDF – 1 MB] available to download at no cost.
  • Schedule a family meeting. When caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or a related illness, family meetings are important to ensure information is shared, to put care plans in place, and to help divide tasks among family members. Here are some tips and strategiesexternal icon to help plan a productive family meeting which include setting goals, planning, coordination, and follow up.
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 health care 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.

References

Livingston G, Huntley J, Sommerlad A, et al. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commissions. Lancet. 220;396(10248):413-446. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30367-6external icon.