Not all memory loss is created equal. There is a distinct physiological difference between age-related memory loss and dementia. Knowing the difference can help you remain calm when normal forgetfulness makes you fear the worst.
That said, ignoring clear signs of dementia means your loved one isn’t getting the help and support they need to slow down the disease’s progression and begin creating a long-term care plan.
Keep reading to learn more about recognizing the differences between age-related memory loss vs. dementia and what to do about it.
Memory Loss: Age-Related or Dementia?
All of us have moments where our mental faculties are not at their best. We forget an appointment, can’t recall a name, or absent-mindedly miss a turn on a familiar route. And, as we age, these scenarios are more common.
However, with Alzheimer’s, these forgetful or foggy moments are not recoverable, happen more frequently, and can negatively impact our mood, behavior, and personal safety.
If you are worried about memory loss, it’s best to schedule an appointment with your general physician. While there is no single test to diagnose dementia or Alzheimer’s, physicians use health screenings, questionnaires, brain scans, and other tools to determine the cause of changes in thinking, movement, or behavior.
In the meantime, here is a chart you can use to determine the difference between normal, age-related memory loss or “senior moments” vs. signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s. We’ve divided the chart into the main memory functions:
- Short-term memory or learning something new
- Organizing, problem-solving, and making decisions
- Recalling words/language
- Geographic orientation and navigation
- Visual perception (distance, depth perception, etc.)
- Mood or behavior
|Memory Function/Ability||Normal Aging||Dementia|
|Short-term memory/learning something new||May occasionally forget an appointment, name, or a specific date but recover it later.
Forget something you were told, and memory may or may not be jogged when reminded.
Can misplace keys, glasses, remote, etc., but can usually retrace steps and find it–or come across it later and think, “Oh, that’s right…I remember putting it there when….”
|Cannot keep track of appointments and often forget the names of close friends or family members, even if with them that day.
Repeatedly asking the same question, often with only minutes or less than an hour between questions.
Misplaced items are frequently found in strange locations, such as a remote control in the bathroom medicine cabinet and reading glasses in the pantry or fridge.
|Organizing/problem-solving/decision-making||It can take a little longer to organize things or think things through, but the process still has a clear start, middle, and logical finish.
It’s more difficult to multitask, but tasks can be completed one at a time.
Occasionally make a poor decision.
Make occasional math mistakes with finances but they can be easily traced and corrected.
|Planning and organizing lead to confusion and do not often result in a final answer or finished product.
Difficulty remaining focused or concentrated on a single task.
Increased bad or irresponsible decisions, especially around finances.
No longer able to keep track of and pay monthly bills on time–or at all.
|Language recall||Sometimes cannot find the right word, or it takes longer to rise to the surface, but usually find it or it comes later.
It can take more concentration to follow conversations, especially with a fast talker or with more than one person speaking at the same time.
Easily lose a conversation thread if distracted or multiple people speak at once.
|Frequently can’t find the right word and begin speaking about “that person,” or “that thing,” without memory recall happening at all.
Struggle to maintain a conversation or to follow and join an existing conversation.
Consistently lose the thread of what someone is saying.
|Geographic/time orientation and navigation||May sometimes forget the day of the week or date (especially after retirement) but can figure it out and can use tools to find it.
Occasionally walk into a room and forget why you’re there or what you wanted.
|Can’t keep days and dates straight anymore, even with reminders.
Often wander around the house without remembering purpose or intent.
Getting lost on routine walking routes or while running errands in familiar places.
Get confused about times of day or seasons, no rhythm around the passage of time.
|Visual perception (distance, depth perception, etc.)||Any vision- or perception-related changes are related to cataracts or vision problems diagnosable by an optometrist or ophthalmologist.||Spatial intelligence falters without any changes in physical vision. More prone to tripping, misjudging distance, and misinterpreting reflections or patterns.|
|Mood or behavior||Can feel a bit low or anxious, but it ebbs and flows.
May feel uneasy about attending social engagements or large gatherings.
Become set in behavior ways and can be irritated when there’s a change or disruption in “the routine.”
|More complete withdrawal and lack of interest in social gatherings and events.
Can become increasingly anxious, afraid, or depressed/angry and may also show a decline in self-confidence.
Becomes usually irritated at home, with friends/family, or in normally comfortable situations. This may increase around sunset or in the evening (sometimes referred to as Sundowner’s Syndrome).
If you notice increases in the “normal age-related memory loss column,” it is still worth scheduling an appointment with a general physician to check-in. A simple screening can help determine whether further analysis is required.
If you do move forward with a comprehensive assessment and receive a dementia diagnosis, it’s time to begin planning the next steps forward.
Age-Related Memory Loss vs. Dementia: We Are Here to Help
While an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis is devastating, research shows most adults with dementia live for another 20 years on average. There is still plenty of time for your loved one to enjoy a high quality of life by enlisting the support of memory care experts.
The Memory Center can help with all aspects of care planning, such as remaining in touch with the latest news regarding medications, diet, and lifestyle changes that slow down the progression of dementia, information on caregiver support, and how to cover the costs of long-term dementia care.
Paying for long-term dementia care can be a particular challenge. Click below to learn how to address finances when providing for a loved one.