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Is it getting older or dementia?

It's a normal sign of ageing to become more forgetful. Find out how for someone with dementia, changes will be different and affect their life more.

How is normal ageing different from dementia?

As people get older, they are likely to notice some changes in their mental abilities. Though these changes can be frustrating, they are a natural part of ageing.

Dementia is not a normal part of getting older.

When a person has dementia, this worsening in mental abilities is much more serious. 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. 

Normal signs of ageing

People often forget things more as they get older. Most often this is a normal sign of ageing. What you consider to be a problem depends partly on what you need or expect to be able to do.

Some very common problems include:

  • forgetting people’s names
  • struggling to remember day-to-day events or experiences
  • misplacing items (such as keys or glasses) around the house
  • getting lost in a familiar place or on a familiar journey
  • finding it hard to start or follow conversations
  • forgetting appointments or important dates (such as birthdays)
  • struggling with the steps in a recipe

Many people worry that these are early signs of dementia. For most people, this is not the case.

Symptoms of dementia

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

The symptoms of dementia may be small to start with, but get worse over time and include:

The difference between normal ageing and dementia

These tables show the main symptoms of the most common types of dementia, which are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. People with these conditions are likely to have at least some of these symptoms, although they may not have all of them.

Less common types of dementia, like dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), may share some of these symptoms. However, their main symptoms are different and are not shown in these tables.

The changes in the tables below may also be caused by other health conditions. 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.

Common signs of ageingPossible symptoms of 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.
Common signs of ageingPossible symptoms of 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, budgets or monthly bills.
Common signs of ageingPossible symptoms of 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.
Common signs of ageingPossible symptoms of 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.Regularly being unable to follow what someone is saying even without distractions.
Common signs of ageingPossible symptoms of 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.
Common signs of ageingPossible symptoms of 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.Feeling 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.

How we support you

Get advice and information, whether you are worried about your memory, waiting for a referral or already diagnosed.

  • Call our support line to speak to a trained adviser
  • Visit our online forum to hear from people in the same situation

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Last reviewed: December 2023

Next review: December 2025