Decoding Dementia

Recognizing the Difference Between Memory Lapses and Dementia

By Pete Alfano


How often have people joked that they could recall in detail events from years ago but can’t remember where they put their keys? Or they met someone for the first time yesterday and have already forgotten that person’s name today. Are these examples something to laugh about or symptoms of the onset of dementia?

That depends. Some memory loss can be part of the aging process. The World Health Organization estimates that 40% of those 65 and older will have some age-related forgetfulness. Those who experience more frequent bouts of forgetfulness are classified as having Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). Memory loss, however, is only one symptom of dementia.

There are other warning signs for people with dementia, which is not a disease, but a condition caused by diseases that damage brain nerve cells. Memory loss, for example, occurs frequently, and often, those with dementia will combine two different memories or have the wrong people involved. People with dementia will have increasing difficulty communicating as they struggle to find the right words to express themselves. They might exhibit frequent mood swings and are prone to say something offensive or act inappropriately. 

They may also become disoriented easily, have poor hygiene, use faulty reasoning, and have trouble understanding what is being said. Their eating habits can change, and they have increasing difficulty with balance and performing daily tasks. Now, having any one or two of these symptoms doesn’t mean a person necessarily has dementia. Sometimes, you forget things because you are distracted or thinking about something else. But exhibiting several of these symptoms is a red flag that should not be ignored.

Dementia cannot be simply attributed to aging. It is a group of symptoms and can also affect “younger” people, meaning those in their 50s and 60s. Is Alzheimer’s disease the same as dementia? No. Alzheimer’s causes dementia and is estimated to account for between 60 and 80% of dementia cases. Alzheimer’s occurs when deposits of specific proteins damage healthy brain cells. Parkinson’s disease, vascular cognitive impairment, Huntington’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and traumatic brain injury are other conditions that damage brain cells and cause dementia. 

There are tests for anyone who is concerned about having symptoms of dementia or suspects that a family member has symptoms. Brain scans can show abnormalities such as tumors, bleeding, or protein deposits associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The Mayo Clinic says that simple blood tests, neurological and psychiatric evaluation, and cognitive testing are indicators of the onset of dementia.  

Symptoms that mimic dementia, caused by factors such as vitamin deficiency, medication side effects, immune disorders, infections, or a brain tumor, may be reversed in some cases. However, there is currently no cure for actual dementia. Although medications and lifestyle changes can help manage it, unfortunately, the symptoms will gradually worsen over time for a great majority of dementia patients. A patient doesn’t die of dementia but an illness such as pneumonia, a heart attack, or cancer as bodily functions deteriorate. The thing to remember, however, is that dementia is not a normal and inevitable part of aging. 

Avoiding Dementia

People can take steps to reduce the chances of developing conditions that lead to dementia. Most are recognizable and vital to maintaining a healthy mind and body. Among those recommended by the Mayo Clinic are:

  • Mind games. As you get older, keep your mind sharp by reading, playing word games, and solving crossword puzzles.
  • Exercise. Being physically active can delay the onset of dementia or make the symptoms milder.
  • Social interaction. It is important to interact with others and not be isolated, which often happens as people age.
  • Good nutrition. A well-balanced diet will help you maintain a healthy weight and lower the odds of cardiovascular disease, which can lead to conditions causing dementia.
  • Treating disorders. Hypertension and hypothyroidism have been identified as diseases that can increase the risk of dementia. These can be easily treated with medications.
  • Family history. You may have a “genetic” predisposition to dementia, so be aware of your family history, which might help you get treatment sooner than later.