Cognitive Decline: What Is Normal? What Is a Warning Sign?

According to the CDC, around 16 million people in the United States are living with cognitive impairment. Individuals with cognitive impairment have trouble

remembering, learning new things, concentrating, or making decisions that affect their everyday life. The severity varies widely, and can progress to the point where an aging person is unable to live independently. Understanding cognitive decline can help you make decisions regarding the treatment and safety needs of your loved one. With that in mind, we will be exploring cognitive impairment in a series of blogs.

What is normal cognitive decline?

As individuals age, it is both common and normal to experience loss of processing speed, as well as certain memory, language, visuospatial, and executive function abilities. Attention span is impaired, as well as the ability to multitask and to recall recently presented information. On the other hand, older adults tend to retain language and vocabulary skills and general information learned at a young age; and may even exhibit improved ability to reason about the “big picture” regarding a specific situation. These changes are believed to be caused by normal changes in the brain, including grey and white matter volume and declines in neurotransmitter levels.

An individual with normal cognitive decline due to aging could exhibit the following behavior: occasional bad decisions, missing a monthly payment, forgetting what day it is but later recalling it, being unable to remember what word to use, or losing things.

What are signs of abnormal cognitive impairment?

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition that is not considered part of the normal aging process. It can be a predictor of Alzheimer’s Disease, though this may not always be the case. Some signs of MCI include losing things often, forgetting to go to important events and appointments, and an ever-increasing lack in the ability to find desired words when communicating.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of MCI, it is important to be monitored frequently by a physician. In the event that symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin, early treatment is vital.

What are the signs of dementia?

The term dementia describes the loss of memory and other mental abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is caused by physical changes in the brain. The most common form is Alzheimer’s Disease. Signs of dementia include asking the same questions over and over again, losing things frequently, getting lost in familiar places, inability to follow instructions, difficulty in making conversation, and confusion about time, people, and places. Individuals with dementia may also undergo personality changes. Early monitoring and treatment can slow progress and greatly improve quality of life.

In future blogs, we will continue to explore both normal and abnormal cognitive decline, as well as what contributes to both and how to maintain safety and dignity throughout the aging process.

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