Fact or Myth: "Dementia is a Normal Part of Aging"

With the increase in life expectancy and the number of people over the age of 65 expected to double in the next 40 years it is important to understand the difference between normal signs of aging and signs of dementia. Normal cognitive changes can be mistaken as early stages of dementia but as we age these changes can be expected which is why it is important to distinguish between the two.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, almost 40 per cent of people over the age of 65 experience some form of memory loss. When there is no underlying medical condition causing this memory loss, it is known as "age-associated memory impairment," which is considered a part of the normal aging process.

Normal signs of aging: Forgetting details of conversations or events that happened years ago.

Signs of dementia: Not being able to remember details of a conversation or event that happened yesterday

Normal signs of aging: Not being able to remember the names of certain acquaintances.

Signs of dementia: Forgetting the names of family members.

Normal signs of aging: Forgetting where you parked your car.

Signs of dementia: Forgetting you have a car.

Normal signs of aging: Difficulty finding the right word but still able to carry on a conversation.

Signs of dementia: Often misusing words, repeating stories or phrases in the same conversation.

Normal signs of aging: Judgement and decision making remains the same.

Signs of dementia: May show poor judgement along with difficulty making decisions on their own, ie. wearing a T-shirt outdoors in a snow storm.

Age-Related Changes in the body that may be confused as signs of dementia

  • Changes in eyesight; as we age our peripheral vision decreases and we may experience differences in our depth perception (Vision change can be a sign of Alzheimer’s but this can also been seen in older adults who may be developing cataracts)
  • Age-related memory loss-one of the most common cognitive complaints from older adults ( like forgetting your neighbors name but being able to figuring it out later throughout the day)
  • Trouble with words (Not being able to think of a word or name but still being able to communicate effectively and carry on a conversation)
  • Changes in mood and behaviour (Becoming frustrated when schedules are changed)
  • Changes in appetite, taste, smell and sight (The foods we used to enjoy can seem less appealing over time)
  • Difficulty falling asleep and maintaining a good night’s rest

Ways to reduce Age-Related Changes

  • Appropriate diet with high protein and fiber nutritional value
  • Physical activity-improves hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease
  • Brain teasers, word search, puzzles, etc. This can help keep the brain active, positively impacting on mental fitness
  • Combining vitamins and weight bearing regime to help increase and maintain bone density

Understanding the difference between normal age-related changes and signs/symptoms of dementia can be a key factor is decreasing stigma for people living with dementia, while also raising awareness. It is important to recognize that dementia is not a normal part of aging to help dispel the myth that everyone develops dementia as we age. By becoming aware of these differences, we are better able to empathize and consider the unique challenges that people living with dementia are facing. Because there are so many myths surrounding dementia and aging we’ve become accustomed to accepting that dementia is an “old person’s disease” when in reality it also affects people at a much younger age.

Young onset dementia occurs when an individual experiences symptoms of dementia before the age of 65, currently affecting 16,000 Canadians. When it is believed that dementia is an ‘old person’s disease’ this creates a lot of stigma and barriers for those living in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s who are also experiencing these symptoms at an earlier than expected point in their lives. Often they are not believed because it is so strongly thought to only affect older adults. This may prolong the process of obtaining a proper diagnosis and lead to difficulty when trying to manage symptoms and planning for their future. In addition, programs and resources for dementia are traditionally designed for older adults, making it difficult for individuals with young onset dementia to fit into the mold and making it meet their needs.

Taking the time to understand the signs and symptoms of dementia versus normal age related changes can help guide the conversation and make the world a more welcoming and understanding place for people living with dementia.

A large portion of this information has been derived from our Dementia: Understanding the Journey course, a 27 hour class taught virtually via Zoom online platform. Dementia: Understanding the Journey is an effective education curriculum for staff and leadership with any background and working within any aspect of a healthcare environment. If you’re interested in learning about the fundamentals of person centered dementia care, find out more about the course here.