Is memory loss a normal part of aging, or is it Alzheimer’s?

While it’s true that our brains and memories will change as we get older and some senescence of memory is normal, memory loss that disrupts daily life is not a normal part of the aging process. In fact, it could be a sign of dementia. Dementia is a slow decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills, and the most common form of degenerative dementia is Alzheimer Disease.

Because this disease effects so many older adults, it is important to learn about the differences between normal age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

“It may be difficult to tell the difference between normal changes in memory and the initial signs of Alzheimer’s as the onset of the disease is usually very insidious. If you notice any of the early symptoms of Alzheimer’s, or a significant loss of memory or brain function, you should talk to your doctor,” said Benjamen Gangewere, DO, Associate Medical Director of Behavioral Health at Penn Highlands, specializing in Geriatric Psychiatry. “Being diagnosed early means you have better opportunities to be treated. This can help delay the progression of disease moving forward, and the medications used for Alzheimer disease are likely most effective during the earliest stages of the disease.”

Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
One of the most common signs of Alzheimer’s disease, especially in the early stage, is forgetting things like dates or events or asking the same questions over and over. Normal age-related change would be occasionally forgetting names or appointments but remembering them later. Typically recent memories are lost first, while older memories remain intact. Importantly, language skills and motor-memory skills often remain intact until the more advanced stages of the disease.

Challenges in planning or solving problems.
Individuals with Alzheimer’s may have changes in what is called “executive functioning”. This is what allows our brain to plan steps for projects and do calculations. For example, trouble following a recipe or an inability to keep track of monthly bills with frequent, reoccurring errors in the checkbook. Normal age-related problems are not as severe and might include making occasional errors when managing finances or household bills.

Difficulty completing familiar tasks.
This could include trouble driving to a familiar location, organizing a grocery list or remembering the rules of a favorite game. A typical age-related change would be needing occasional help to use technology, for instance.

Confusion with time or place.
As we get older, we may have trouble remembering what day it is, but people living with Alzheimer’s can lose track of dates, seasons and even the passage of time, or they may forget where they are or how they got there.

New problems with words in speaking or writing.
We all experience trouble with finding the right word on occasion, but those living with Alzheimer’s will often stop in the middle of a conversation and have no idea how to continue. They also may struggle with vocabulary or have trouble naming a familiar object. Language difficulties typically occur as the disease progresses from mild to moderate or severe.

Withdrawal from work or social activities.
Because people living with Alzheimer’s have trouble following a conversation, they often withdraw from work or social activities. Additionally, depression commonly co-occurs with Alzheimer’s which may reinforce social withdrawal.

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, talk to your primary care provider or a healthcare professional.

Penn Highlands Healthcare offers memory care and other support and resources for individuals and families experiencing Alzheimer’s and dementia. If you have questions or would like to learn more, please visit