What’s the Difference Between Normal Cognitive Aging and Something More Worrisome?

As the summer season approaches, we look forward to time with friends and joyous reunions with our families.  This is a perfect time to reconnect, share a meal and celebrate.  But there’s another element to this much anticipated season that often comes to light during our time together: changes in our loved ones. 

Change is normal. Some slowing of our cognitive processing abilities is expected as we age.  During get togethers we may notice family members behaving differently.  A favorite aunt might have difficulty preparing the recipe she makes every 4th of July, or Mom may noticeably repeat herself. Maybe you’re visiting a relative’s house and observe that their once tidy home has not been cleaned in some time and is very cluttered.  For those of us that aren’t health professionals, how can we figure out if the changes we observe are normal cognitive aging or cognitive decline that might be associated with dementia? 

Tips to Know When Getting Together with Friends and Family 

We’ve consulted with Jessie Hillock, a Certified Dementia Practitioner, Licensed Speech Language Pathologist and Family Coach, to bring more insight.  “I often get questions from families trying to make sense of the changes they see in loved ones.  While there is no easy way for a family to make a certain determination, there are some typical behaviors that may indicate a need for professional help.”  As founder of The Memory Compass, she has developed a checklist that families can use.  Some items on her list include: 

Behaviors associated with normal cognitive aging:

  • Less ability to multi-task 
  • Slowing of thinking speed  
  • Simple forgetfulness, such as placement of keys or cell phone 
  • Delay or slowing in recall of dates, names or events 

You might want to seek professional help if you notice things like:

  • Weight loss since you were last together 
  • Difficulty with word finding 
  • Forgetfulness with medications 
  • Poor hygiene habits 
  • Difficulty with sequencing activities, like following a recipe 

Click the link below to view and print the complete checklist.

Tips for Assessing Aging Behavior and Coping with Cognitive Decline

Whether the changes that you are observing are normal cognitive decline or early stages of dementia, family coaching might be something to consider.  Jessie tells us “A family coach can bridge the gap between medical diagnosis and daily living.  For example, a neurologist may tell you that your parent has early-stage dementia and that you need to schedule them for another doctor’s appointment in six months.  A family coach can tell you how to help them live with that diagnosis every day.  The coach can share suggestions on how to communicate more effectively with your parent and give you tips on setting up a comfortable daily routine that respects your parent’s dignity and ensures their safety.” 

Other Common Questions

There are also other common questions Jessie hears from families learning to cope with a loved one’s decline.  The first question is How do I help my parent or partner stay healthy?’”  Jessie encourages families to help their loved one stay active in appropriate ways.  This might be walking, gardening or doing chair fitness exercises.  Another focus is nutrition.  She advises clients to make sure their loved one gets adequate nutrition from a Mediterranean or MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, both of which are shown to support brain health. 

Another frequent question Jessie gets from family members is “What can I do to protect my own brain health?”  This one is often a deeper question.  “As family members watch a loved one decline, they often grapple with the possibility that this can happen to them, too.  It’s never too soon to focus on good nutrition and Mediterranean style diets that are strongly connected to reduced risk of dementia and slower cognitive decline.” Jessie goes on to remind family members that “Physical activity is also important—not only for brain health, but to manage the stress that can be associated with a care partner role.” 

Even if you find yourself facing the decline of a loved one, Jessie offers inspiration and encouragement.  There are still rewarding and rich experiences along the journey, but it is the care partner, family, and friends that have to learn how to adapt to the individual living with the declineIt’s not realistic to expect our loved ones to change or adapt to us, but individuals with Alzheimer's and dementia still have purpose. And there are still so many things that we can do together to bring joy into each other's lives. 

Enjoy your celebrations with loved ones and be mindful of possible changes.  Know that wherever the aging journey takes us, there are resources to support lifelong brain health and coaches to help us along the way. 

For more information on family coaching in the context of dementia, you can contact Jessie at: jessie@thememorycompass.com or visit https://www.thememorycompass.com 

For more information on nutrition to support lifelong brain health and NeuroReserve, please visit us at:  https://neuroreserve.com/ 

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