Some changes in thinking ability are considered a normal part of aging. Most healthy older adults experience mild decline in some areas of cognition, such as visual and verbal memory, immediate memory or the ability to name objects.
However, some people experience dementia, which is not part of normal aging. Dementia is characterized by multiple cognitive deficits with memory impairments affecting a person's language, working (immediate) memory, spatial memory, verbal memory and executive functioning. Executive function is a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. People use it to plan, organize, strategize, pay attention to and remember details, and to manage time and space.
In most cases, a person's social functioning and ability to live independently must be affected to be diagnosed with dementia. Independent living means the ability to shop alone, manage finances, perform basic household duties and monitor appropriate social behaviors. Independent living should not be compromised during normal aging.
It is often difficult to determine if someone's cognitive changes are not just a normal part of aging. Symptoms of dementia and what is considered normal behaviour differ for each person. This contributes to the challenges doctors may face when determining whether or not cognitive decline is due to a physiological or psychological condition.
Symptoms of dementia include:
- Getting lost in familiar places
- Repetitive questioning
- Odd or inappropriate behaviors
- Forgetting recent events
- Repeated falls or loss of balance
- Personality changes
- Decline in planning and organization
- Changes in diet or eating habits
- Changes in hygiene
- Increased apathy
- Changes in language abilities, including comprehension
The progression of cognitive deficits in conditions such as Alzheimer's disease may accelerate in the few years before the person is diagnosed. Accelerated cognitive decline may not occur until events, like a stroke, reach a threshold where the brain can no longer compensate for damage. It is important to get regular medical check-ups to monitor the extent and severity of any cognitive decline.
Risk Factors for Cognitive Decline
- High blood pressure, diabetes, poor nutrition and social isolation are associated with a higher probability of developing a neurodegenerative condition
- Heart disease
- Family history of dementia
- Psychological factors such as stress and depression also negatively affect the healthy aging process
Tips for Healthy Aging
Although we have yet to discover the fountain of youth, there are many ways to increase your life expectancy:
- Stay away from smoking and limit alcohol consumption.
- Maintain a high level of physical activity through exercise. Exercise helps keep muscles strong and flexible and helps maintain mood.
- Get routine medical care.
- Care for your cardiovascular health. Remember, what's good for the heart is good for the brain!
- Develop social support networks, so you can share the aging process with others who are experiencing the same challenges and joys of the latter years of life.
- Keep doing the activities that you enjoy and find challenging for as long as possible. For example, gardening, playing bridge, walking and reading are complicated enough to involve your mind but don't add stress to your life.
- Eat a healthy diet. Plan your meals around your vegetables and then fill in with other foods. Eat a variety of foods as close to their natural state as possible.
While it is important to remain vigilant about maintaining good health, it is equally important to acknowledge that there are individual differences during the aging process. Discuss any concerns you may have with a health care professional.
UCSF Health medical specialists have reviewed this information. It is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor or other health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your provider.