Many people worry about becoming forgetful as they age, concerned that it may be a sign of dementia.
In fact, one study found that 50% of adults over 60 have concerns about their memory.
So how do you tell whether memory lapses are within the scope of normal ageing – or represent something more serious, such as dementia?
Ageing: Memory and Thinking Skills
Like our body, our brain also undergoes changes with ageing. As a result, there are slight changes that will occur in memory and cognition (thinking) as we age. Some of the common changes that occur with ageing can include:
- Slower learning and ability to recall information;
- More difficulty remembering recent events (eg what did I have for breakfast?);
- Trouble finding the right word when you need it – “tip of the tongue”;
- Misplacing or forgetting where you have put something (this often happens if you are thinking of something else and don’t focus on where you put it in the first place);
- Slower speed of processing information and responding to situations.
However, not everything declines with age. Research shows growth in vocabulary and wisdom with ageing. Memory for facts, words, concepts (semantic memory) and memory for skills and procedures like riding a bike (procedural memory) remain stable with ageing.
Age-related changes in memory and cognition can be frustrating, but they do not cause significant impairment in ability to carry out everyday tasks. Also, learning and using memory strategies can effectively compensate for these changes.
Other Causes of Memory Changes
Problems with memory and cognition can be caused by a number of health issues, including:
- Effects of certain types of medication;
- Medical conditions eg infections, thyroid, liver or kidney disorders, B12 deficiency;
- Chronic alcohol use;
- Psychological conditions such as anxiety and depression.
As these conditions are treated, memory and cognition will generally improve.
Signs of Dementia
Dementia is not one specific condition. It is an umbrella term used to describe a group of brain diseases that cause permanent and usually progressive decline in cognition. There are many different types of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease the most common form, accounting for about 70% of dementia cases.
Symptoms of early Alzheimer’s disease may include:
- Memory loss that disrupts daily life;
- Challenges in planning or solving problems;
- Confusion with time, place or people;
- New problems with understanding language or using words in speaking or writing;
- Difficulty making sense of visual information;
- Decreased or poor judgment;
- Withdrawal from work or social activities;
- Changes in mood, personality and behaviour.
For dementia to be diagnosed there needs to be multiple cognitive difficulties that cause significant impairment in day-to-day tasks (driving, cooking, self-care) that typically get worse with time. The risk of dementia increases with age; however, it is important to remember that it is NOT a normal part of ageing. Most older adults do not develop dementia!
How to Test for Dementia
Unfortunately there is no single test that can diagnose dementia, so a comprehensive approach is required. Your GP will take a thorough medical history and they may refer you to have some blood tests, or brain scans. A referral to a neuropsychologist may be recommended.
Neuropsychologists are psychologists who specialise in the assessment and treatment of brain-based issues, such as memory and other cognitive functions. An assessment by a neuropsychologist can help with the diagnosis of early dementia, differentiating between the types of dementia and ruling out mental health conditions such as depression.
Tips for Preventing Memory and Cognitive Problems
While there is no way to prevent dementia, the following strategies have been found to help maximize cognitive function:
- Look after your physical and emotional health – maintain regular health checks with your GP, take prescribed medication, seek treatment for longstanding depression and anxiety.
- Challenge yourself mentally – You could try crossword puzzles, word games, and memory training, or you could challenge your self by learning something new (eg language, musical instrument, card game or other hobby). Research suggests that education and learning reduce decline in cognitive function.
- Socialise and participate in activities – Inactivity and withdrawal from social events can contribute to reduced cognitive abilities and wellbeing. A good way to overcome this is to schedule in regular weekly social and recreational activities using a calendar or planner. This could include going out for coffee or a meal with friends or family, or becoming involved in hobbies, groups or organisations.
- Live Well – It’s important to have a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and maintain regular sleep patterns. These lifestyle factors have an impact upon thinking, and wellbeing in general.
Author: Dr Megan Broughton, BA Hons (Psych), PhD (Clinical Psychology & Clinical Neuropsychology), MAPS, MCCLP, MCCN.
Dr Megan Broughton is a Clinical Psychologist and neuropsychologist, with over 10 years’ experience in assessing, diagnosing and treating clients with a range of psychological and neurological conditions. She is passionate about helping adults and their family members cope with challenges associated with health conditions, accident, ageing, or disability.
To make an appointment with Dr Megan Broughton, try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call (07) 3088 5422.
- Attix, D. K., & Welsh-Bohmer, K. A. (2006). Geriatric neuropsychology: Assessment and intervention. New York: Guilford Press.
- Ravdin, L. D. & Katzen, H. L. (2014). Handbook on the Neuropsychology of Aging and Dementia. New York: Springer-Verlag.