Is it Alzheimer’s Disease or Cognitive Decline?

Alzheimer's Disease vs Cognitive Decline
Knowing the difference between Alzheimer’s Disease and typical cognitive decline in aging.


We have all had that moment when we walk into a room and can’t for the life of us remember why we walked into that room. If you are younger than 70 years old, you probably think, sheesh, I am so scatterbrained! Why did I come in here? Sadly, I have seen many of my clients take it to a whole different level. They go into a panic, immediately thinking it must be Alzheimer’s disease.


Everyone forgets, or has “senior moments,” so when should we get concerned? First, let’s establish the difference between Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline.


I recently took a certification course by the Schmieding Center on Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia and they had an interesting way of defining the conditions. Dementia is a group of brain disorders that cause the loss of intellectual and social skills. It is like an umbrella and Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Dementia with Lewy Bodies and Huntington’s disease are some of the conditions that fall under the umbrella.


Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions. In the early stages, someone with Alzheimer’s disease may notice mild confusion and difficulty remembering. Eventually, they can forget important people in their lives and undergo dramatic personality changes. In Alzheimer’s disease, the brain cells degenerate and die, causing a steady decline in memory and mental function.


It’s not surprising that it is one of the most feared diseases for seniors.


While many seniors fear Alzheimer’s disease, in many cases, a forgetful moment isn’t a sign of the disease, but more likely a sign of cognitive decline. As we get older, our cognitive abilities gradually deteriorate, much like other muscles in the body. A certain amount of cognitive decline is a normal part of aging. People differ greatly in the degree to which their brains, and the rest of their bodies, decline with age. It is totally normal to have the occasional forgetful moment when you don’t remember where your keys are, or you blank on someone’s name.


Of course, if you have any concerns, addressing it with your doctor is always a good idea. To alleviate your concerns, here are 10 early Alzheimer’s disease symptoms from the Alzheimer’s Association:


1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life
– Typical: Forgetting a name or appointment but remembering them later
– Possible warning sign: Forgetting important events or dates or asking for the same information over and over


2. Challenges in planning or solving problems
– Typical: Occasional errors when balancing your checkbook
– Possible warning sign: Trouble following a familiar recipe or maintaining monthly expenses


3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, work or leisure
– Typical: Occasionally forgetting how to set up a television show recording
– Possible warning sign: Difficulty remembering the rules of a favorite game or trouble driving to a familiar location


4. Confusion with time or place
– Typical: Getting confused about the day of the week but remembering it later
– Possible warning sign: Forgetting where they are or how they got there


5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
– Typical: Vision changes related to cataracts
– Possible warning sign: Difficulty reading, determining distance or determining colors


6. New problems with words in speaking or writing
– Typical: Occasional trouble finding the right word
– Possible warning sign: Difficulty following a conversation or not knowing how to continue a conversation


7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
– Typical: Losing items from time to time but having the ability to retrace steps to eventually find them
– Possible warning sign: Putting things in unusual places and accusing others of stealing items or being unable to retrace steps to find lost items


8. Decreased or poor judgment
– Typical: Making a bad decision once in a while
– Possible warning sign: Giving large amounts of money away to scam artists or someone taking advantage of their relationship or poor grooming and maintenance


9. Withdrawal from work or social activities
– Typical: Occasional weariness from work or personal obligations
– Possible warning sign: Avoiding social interaction due to difficulty remembering how to complete a hobby or inability to follow a sports team


10. Changes in mood or personality
– Typical: Irritability when a specific way of doing things is disrupted
– Possible warning sign: Becoming confused, suspicious or easily upset when they are out of their comfort zone


If these, or any other memory or personality changes concern you, it is important to bring them up with your parent’s doctor early. It may not be a sign of dementia at all, but rather a side effect from medication.


If your parent is concerned that their forgetfulness is a sign of dementia, it goes a long way to reassure them that their occasional forgetfulness is completely normal and maybe share a time when you forgot something.


I had a client who was 92 years old who was concerned that she forgot my license plate number and had trouble finding my car. I reassured her that first, I don’t even know my license plate number, and second, the other day, I missed my off ramp going home and got lost in a nearby neighborhood. The difference is, I didn’t immediately jump to dementia, I thought, whoa, I need to pay more attention! An occasional forgetful moment can be just an occasional forgetful moment.


How do you reassure an aging senior that their normal memory loss is nothing to worry about?

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