Normal Aging vs. Alzheimer’s

You notice your mom’s memory has worsened with age. You ask yourself, “Is this normal or is there something deeper going on?” Identifying symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease compared to regular aging can be tricky, but knowing the difference is important for early intervention.

Normal aging and Alzheimer’s are very different; however, both involve changes in the brain. Normal aging is a natural process, while Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia, a degenerative condition that gets worse over time. The most prominent difference is the degree of impairment. With typical aging, a person can experience some mild cognitive decline, but this is usually not severe enough to interfere with everyday life. Alzheimer’s, however, causes difficulties in day-to-day functioning and continues to get worse. As the disease progresses, it can cause significant impairment in a person’s ability to think, remember, reason and make decisions.

Another difference between aging and Alzheimer’s is the rate of decline. With normal aging, a person may have very gradual changes that are not noticeable day-to-day. Alzheimer’s, however, can impact a person’s ability to work or take care of themselves in a short period of time. The types of cognitive changes experienced are also distinct. With normal aging, a person can experience some mild memory problems, such as occasional forgetting of names or dates. They may also have slight difficulty focusing or concentrating. Alzheimer’s, though, can cause severe memory problems, including difficulty remembering recent events, confusion, disorientation and difficulty recognizing familiar people or places.

The behavioral changes associated with Alzheimer’s are also more severe. Normal aging can cause small changes in personality, such as becoming less interested in activities or mild changes in mood. In contrast, Alzheimer’s can entirely alter a person’s behavior and personality, such as new agitation, aggression, delusions and hallucinations. They may not have the same sense of humor that they had before. They may not engage in any of the activities they previously loved to do. Over time, the changes can be alarming to friends and family. With normal aging, benefits can be reaped with regular exercise, continued social outings and more. With Alzheimer’s, symptoms cannot be stopped, but may be slowed with medications.

In summary, Alzheimer’s disease is different from normal aging. Alzheimer’s symptoms:

  • cause significant impairment.
  • worsen over time.
  • can happen rapidly.
  • can alter a person’s entire personality.
  • cannot be stopped with lifestyle changes.

If you want to take action to prevent getting dementia, David B. Carr, MD, Washington University geriatric specialist, provides steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Pursue learning.
  • Stay engaged in your community.
  • Eat nutritiously.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Treat chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Use hearing aids.
  • Limit or eliminate alcohol.
  • Prevent head trauma.
  • Stop or avoid smoking.
  • Get adequate sleep.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms related to aging, Washington University Occupational Therapy can help. We offer driving evaluations, cognitive stimulation therapy and more. Please call 314-286-1669 for an appointment.

Occupational Therapy Services
4444 Forest Park Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63108