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Is Your Mom Showing Signs of Dementia or Just Getting Older?

Forgetfulness goes hand in hand with aging, so adult children caring for their parents frequently find themselves faced with a tough question: Could your mom be showing signs of dementia, or is her forgetfulness just a sign of aging?

Occasional memory lapses are frustrating but normal, Dr. Verna R. Porter, neurologist and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Program at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, tells SheKnows.

“Examples of common memory complaints that may occasionally occur during normal aging include misplacing objects around the house, forgetting the names of less familiar acquaintances, forgetting your intent upon entering a room or having some difficulty remembering lesser details of what you have read or of prior conversations,” Porter says. It’s also not uncommon to have occasional difficulty remembering a word and feeling like it’s on the tip of your tongue. 

When to be worried

So, when does forgetfulness escalate from a normal part of the aging process to cause for concern? Porter says the key difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that “typical” forgetfulness doesn’t interfere with a person’s ability to function in their daily life and they are still able to carry out their usual chores, activities and routines. Similarly, Dr. Aaron George, an osteopathic primary care physician, tells SheKnows that forgetfulness isn’t cause for concern unless it becomes progressive and begins to impact daily activities.

“In contrast [to forgetfulness], dementia is characterized by marked, persistent and disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities — such as memory, language, judgment or abstract reasoning — that significantly interfere with and disrupt your normal daily activities,” Porter explains. When memory loss disrupts a person’s work, hobbies, social activities and family relationships, this could be a sign they have an evolving dementia syndrome or a condition that mimics dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, a brain infection, cerebrovascular disease or an autoimmune illness like multiple sclerosis. 

What to look for

George’s advice is to be on the lookout for abrupt changes or rapid differences in a parent’s memory. He tells SheKnows that other red flags are when a person’s memory issues impact their life, particularly in a negative or dangerous manner; examples include forgetting to turn off the stove after cooking, missing paying bills or losing their grasp on balancing the checkbook.

“I will often ask if patients find themselves driving somewhere and then forgetting why they left or losing the way in an otherwise normal driving route,” George says. “All of these may be signs to seek further evaluation with a physician.”

Porter adds that the following are warning signs that a parent should be evaluated for dementia or a dementia-related illness:

  • Repetitively asking the same questions
  • Frequently inserting the wrong word into a conversation (for example saying, “sofa” instead of “chair”)
  • Taking a long time to complete daily chores due to memory problems
  • Getting lost while walking or driving in a relatively familiar area
  • A sudden, unexplained change in mood, personality or behavior

The bottom line is that if you’re worried about a parent’s declining memory, it can never hurt to have them evaluated by an expert. Hopefully you’ll be provided with reassurance that their memory lapses are an unpleasant but normal part of aging — but if there is an underlying cause, the sooner you can begin working with a doctor on a treatment plan, the better.

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