• 1 February 2024
  • Dr Stephen Winters

Age-related Memory Loss vs Dementia

As we age, it is natural to experience changes in memory and cognitive function. However, understanding the difference between normal age-related memory changes and the signs of dementia is essential for accurate diagnosis and appropriate care.

Typical age-related memory changes may include occasional forgetfulness, such as misplacing objects or difficulty remembering names. These memory lapses are generally minor and do not significantly interfere with daily activities.

Dementia refers to a group of conditions characterised by loss of memory and other cognitive domains (such as thinking, decision making and social abilities) which is severe enough to interfere with daily life.

The key difference between age-related memory impairment and dementia, is that in dementia, memory impairment interferes with an individual’s ability to complete their daily tasks in an independent manner.

Examples of differences between typical age-related memory changes and dementia:

Typical age-related changes Dementia
Memory Occasionally forgetting appointments (remembering them later) Inability to remember new information, repeatedly forgetting important dates/events, reliance on memory aids
Judgment Making an occasional mistake such as not filling up the car Repeatedly making the same poor decision (car, personal, finance related)
Familiar tasks Occasional error when paying bill Inability to keep track of bills, use usual system to pay bills
Speech/language/td> Occasionally forgetting names/words (remembering them later) Difficulty following/joining conversation, repeating sentences, vagueness

Often those with age-related memory impairment will be aware of their symptoms, whilst it’s the family of an individual with dementia who notices their symptoms.

Recognising the signs of dementia

Dementia is a progressive condition that involves significant cognitive decline and affects a person’s ability to function independently.

Signs of dementia include:

  • Memory impairment which disrupts daily life
  • Confusion, difficulty with problem-solving and planning
  • Disorientation
  • Language problems
  • Impaired judgment
  • Social withdrawal
  • Changes in mood, personality and behaviour

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for approximately 60-70% of cases.

Other types of dementia include:

  • Vascular dementia
  •  Lewy body disease
  • Frontotemporal dementia
  • Alcohol related dementia
  • HIV associated dementia
  • Chronic traumatic encephalopathy

age related memory loss vs dementiaDementia mimics

There are a number of potential dementia mimics that should be considered in an individual presenting with cognitive impairment: :

  • Delirium
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Excessive stress
  • Vitamin deficiencies (B12)
  • Head injury
  • Normal pressure hydrocephalus
  • Problems with vision and hearing
  • Diabetes
  • Thyroid disease
  • Certain medications

These conditions can affect memory and cognitive function, leading to temporary confusion and forgetfulness. It is important to consider and address these potential underlying factors before concluding a dementia diagnosis, as in a number of cases, symptoms may be reversible.
Diagnostic process and seeking professional help
If you or a loved one are experiencing concerning memory changes, seeking professional help is vital.

A thorough diagnostic work up can help to determine the cause of the symptoms and differentiate between normal age-related changes and dementia. This will include:

  • A comprehensive evaluation of a person’s medical history
  • Physical examination
  • Cognitive/neuropsychological assessments (such as the MOCA, MMSE and ACE III tests)
  • Laboratory tests which may include blood tests and a lumbar puncture (spinal tap)
  • CT, MRI or PET imaging may also be performed (guided by the above results)

Coping strategies and support for memory challenges

While there is no cure for dementia, various coping strategies and support systems can help individuals manage memory challenges and maintain a good quality of life.

These strategies may include:

  • Memory aids – write down daily tasks on post it notes, calendars
  • Daily routines
  • Engaging in mentally stimulating activities
  • Maintaining a healthy lifestyle – stay physically active, eat a healthy diet, stop smoking, avoid excessive alcohol
  • Seeking emotional support from family, friends, and support groups

Planning for the longer term – identify those you trust to make decisions on your behalf and tell them in advance what your preferences are for ongoing care and support
Medications are also available for some types of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. Please see the “Alzheimer’s disease” page for more details.

Choose CURA Medical Specialists for your memory concerns

Our experienced team at CURA Medical Specialists specialise in providing personalised, expert care for those with Neurologic conditions. Contact us today to schedule your consultation.

FAQs

For more information on the difference between dementia and age-related memory impairment please read our most frequently asked questions:

How do you know if it’s dementia or age-related memory impairment?

Distinguishing between dementia and age-related memory impairment requires a comprehensive evaluation by a medical professional. This evaluation may include medical history review, physical examination, cognitive and neuropsychological assessments, and possibly brain imaging (CT, MRI and or PET scans). If your memory impairment does not interfere with your ability to complete your daily tasks independently, it is likely that you have age-related memory impairment rather than dementia. A lack of progressive memory impairment over a number of months further supports this.

Can memory loss be related to Alzheimer’s disease?

Yes, memory loss is one of the hallmark symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia.

What is mild cognitive impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition in which individuals experience cognitive changes that are noticeable but do not meet the criteria for dementia. It can be a precursor to dementia, but not everyone with MCI progresses to develop dementia. Approximately 10-15% of individuals with MCI will progress to develop dementia each year.

Does age always affect memory and brain function?

While age can bring about changes in memory and brain function, not everyone experiences a significant change in their cognition as they get older Some individuals maintain good memory and cognitive abilities well into old age, while others may experience more noticeable changes.

PLEASE NOTE: This information is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment. It is aimed at presenting a perspective only and is not a substitute for a prescription or clinical assessment. Anyone experiencing a medical condition should consult their doctor.

Dr Stephen Winters
About The Author

Dr Stephen Winters

Dr Hugh Stephen Winters is a neurologist with four years of exhaustive training in interventional neuroradiology, which includes a year of clinical and procedural fellowship in Clinical and Procedural Fellowship in Interventional Neuroradiology at the Erlanger Medical Center in Tennessee.

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