What's the difference between signs of Alzheimer's and normal aging?

Judith London, MD

Alzheimer's always involves something more than just short-term memory loss. It involves an additional issue. Difficulty figuring things out, identifying objects for what they are, inability to say what an object or inability to do something even though mechanically able to do it plus memory loss are signs of Alzheimer's.

Some forgetfulness occurs in normal aging. For example, trouble finding the right word during a conversation or a delay in remembering where a person placed his keys is part of normal aging. But when someone cannot retrace his steps to figure out where those keys are, or doesn't know what to do with the keys once he discovers them - that may be a sign that something is amiss. Medical evaluation to rule out a physical cause is the first step before visiting a neurologist.

Shelley Webb
It’s estimated that more than 10 million senior citizens require some level of help in their daily living, ranging from simple chores to more complex caretaking. Many of these people will suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, but for others, difficulties arise from the typical age-related changes many of us will face eventually. Understanding which is the case for your loved one is the first step to deciding which services will benefit your aging family member most.

One sign of Alzheimer’s disease is poor judgment and decision making, for example, giving large sums of money to telemarketers. On the other hand, a typical age-related change involves making a bad decision once in a while.

The inability to manage a budget after years of doing so may signal Alzheimer’s, especially when bills are repeatedly unpaid or the person has no knowledge of his checkbook balance. Missing a monthly payment occasionally is more closely associated with typical aging.

People with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, seasons and the passage of time, or may forget where they are or how they got there. On the other hand, many of us will forget what day it is occasionally, but we figure it out later and don’t usually experience the confusion someone with Alzheimer’s may.

While many elderly (and some not so elderly) will have trouble finding the right word at times, people with Alzheimer’s may have trouble following or joining a conversation. They may stop in the middle of a sentence and have no idea how to continue. They may struggle with vocabulary, have problems finding the right word, or call things by the wrong name.

People with Alzheimer’s may put things in unusual places or lose things and be unable to go back over their steps to find them again. This happens with increasing frequency and involves much more than simply misplacing the television remote once in a while, which is more typical of common aging.
Sharine Forbes
Geriatric Medicine

Alzheimer’s does lead to memory loss, but it also leads to the inability of the patient to perform normal day to day tasks like brushing their teeth, showering, feeding themselves, etc. This happens because Alzheimer’s disease adversely affects the tissue of the brain, thus making daily activities difficult and causing the inability to recognize family and friends.

Furthermore, Alzheimer’s has a detrimental affect on the overall mechanisms of the brain resulting from changes in the neurobiology of the processes. 

Jill A. Grimes, MD
Family Medicine

Memory loss with Alzheimer's disease can usually be distinguished from memory changes with normal aging.

Do you forget why you walked in a room? Can't find your keys or the TV remote? Couldn't think of an old friend's name when you ran in to them at the store? Relax -- none of these episodes are unusual for a healthy, busy adult. Typically these things happen when you are stressed and simply not paying much attention to your task at hand.

What is concerning, then? Forgetting directions to the grocery store where you always shop; missing multiple appointments because you confused times/dates; being unable make change or figure out tips (when you could before); or not being able to name common objects (like a watch or a shirt.)

If you think you are having significant memory issues, please go see your doctor. There are many causes of memory loss that are correctable, and even if you do have early Alzheimer's disease, there are good medicines that really slow the progression of disease.

Zaldy S. Tan, MD
Geriatric Medicine

It is challenging, even for some medical professionals, to distinguish between the benign cognitive changes of normal aging and early dementia. Normal aging can cause slower information processing and retrieval. That means it may take a bit longer to remember someone’s name or where you parked your car. While age-related cognitive changes may mimic Alzheimer’s, the difference is the degree and frequency. Occasional forgetfulness is normal. However, misplacing items frequently or forgetting names of people you see regularly may be signs of early dementia. If the memory difficulties affect your work or social life, it is a good idea to see a doctor for a professional diagnosis.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.