Is it getting older, or dementia?

People often start to forget things more as they get older. Most often this is a normal sign of ageing. But for someone with dementia, changes will be different, more serious and will affect their life more.

What are the normal signs of ageing?

As people get older, they are likely to notice some changes in their mental abilities. These could include:

  • becoming a little more forgetful 
  • taking a bit longer to remember things 
  • getting distracted more easily 
  • finding it harder to do several things at once. 

This may become noticeable particularly from middle age – usually meaning our 40s, 50s and early 60s.

Though these changes can be frustrating, they are a natural part of ageing. Many people worry that these are early signs of dementia. For most people, this is not the case. 

How is dementia different from normal ageing?

Dementia is a group of symptoms. It’s caused by different diseases that damage the brain.

The symptoms of dementia get worse over time and include:

  • memory loss
  • confusion and needing help with daily tasks
  • problems with language and understanding
  • changes in behaviour.

When a person has dementia, this worsening in mental abilities is much more serious than the normal changes that people experience as they get older. 

The changes may be small to start with, but become more noticeable. For a health professional to diagnose dementia, a person's symptoms must be significantly affecting their daily life. This means having difficulties with completing daily tasks about the house, in the community or at work.

Comparing the signs of normal ageing and dementia

Dementia is not a normal part of getting older.

Below are six tables showing differences between changes that are likely to be part of getting older and those that could be signs of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia – the two most common types of dementia. Not every person with dementia will have all of these symptoms.

Less common types of dementia, like dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD) may lead to early changes that are not shown in these tables, such as hallucinations, inappropriate language or behaviour, and problems staying alert.

The changes in the tables below may also be caused by other health conditions. For example, a person with depression can have problems making decisions, get confused easily and appear withdrawn. A person with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or functional cognitive disorder (FCD) may also experience some of these changes, but these conditions are different from dementia.

For this reason, it’s important not to use these tables to try to diagnose dementia in yourself or someone else.

Dementia can only be diagnosed by a qualified health professional. 

Examples of normal ageing vs dementia

Memory and new information

Common signs of ageing Possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia

Forgetting something you were told a while ago

Forgetting something you were only recently told. You may ask for the same information repeatedly – for example, 'Are the doors locked?'

Misplacing things from time to time – for example, your phone, glasses or the TV remote – but retracing steps to find them

Putting objects in unusual places – for example, putting your house keys in the bathroom cabinet

Taking longer to work out new tasks, such as how to set up and use a new appliance or device

Being unable to learn new tasks, like setting up and using a new appliance or device

Planning and decision making

Common signs of ageing Possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia

Being a bit slower when planning, but being able to think things through

Getting very confused when planning or thinking things through

Finding it harder to do several tasks at once, but being able to focus on a single task

Struggling to stay focused on a single task

Occasionally making decisions without fully thinking them through 

Not making informed, careful decisions when dealing with money or looking at risks

Sometimes making a mistake with a new payment, but being able to manage overall budgets 

Finding it hard to manage regular payments, like budgets or monthly bills

Language (speech and conversation)

Common signs of ageing Possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia

Occasionally struggling to find the right word, but remembering it eventually 

Having frequent problems finding the right word or regularly referring to objects as 'that thing' 

Needing to concentrate harder to keep up with a conversation, but being able to join in when focused

Finding it hard to take part in conversations

Losing track of the conversation if you’re distracted or if many people are speaking at once

Regularly being unable to follow what someone is saying even without distractions

Orientation (having a sense of time and place)

Common signs of ageing Possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia

Getting confused about the day or the week but figuring it out later

Losing track of the date, season or the passage of time

Getting lost in a place you don’t know well, but being able to figure out where you need to be

Getting lost in a place that is familiar or that should be easy to find your way around – for example, a supermarket

Vision and perception (understanding what is being seen)

Common signs of ageing Possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia

Having misty or cloudy vision, caused by cataracts or other changes in the eyes

Having problems making sense of what you see – for example, having difficulty judging distances on stairs, or mistaking reflections or patterns for other objects

Mood and behaviour

Common signs of ageing Possible signs of Alzheimer’s disease or vascular dementia

Sometimes feeling reluctant to join in at work, family and social meetings

Becoming withdrawn and losing interest in work, friends or hobbies

Sometimes feeling a bit low or anxious

Getting unusually sad, anxious, frightened or low in confidence

Becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted, but being able to cope with the change

Getting easily upset at home, at work, with friends or in places that usually feel comfortable or familiar

These tables list common examples, but everyone’s experience of dementia is different and you know yourself best.

Any changes that aren’t normal for you should be taken seriously. The changes may not seem big, but if you are struggling with things you used to find easier it’s best to speak to your GP.

Next steps

The thought of being told you have dementia is frightening. It can be difficult to talk to other people about your symptoms and how you’re feeling. But doing this will help to get answers and any support you need.

If you’re worried about any changes you’ve noticed in yourself or in someone else, you could:

Six ways to reduce your risk of dementia

There are things you can do to help reduce your risk of developing dementia.

Reduce your risk
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