The Difference Between Signs of Normal Aging and Symptoms of Dementia

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 (MCI) or 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. 

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:

  • speak to your GP, or encourage the person to talk to their GP