'He forgets to eat': What it's like to have a family member with dementia — and how to tell it apart from age-related memory loss

Senior man sitting in a wheelchair on a lawn, with caregiver standing next to him.
Dementia affects more than 20% of American adults ages 85 to 89, and that number increases with age. (Getty Images)

Some level of forgetfulness is common with age, but there's a difference between age-related memory loss and dementia. More than 20% of American adults ages 85 to 89 experience dementia, and that number increases with age — 33% of adults age 90 and older have the condition.

One of them is Dianne Russell's father, Grove. Grove is 95 and started showing signs of dementia several years ago. "One of the first things we noticed was we would tell him something and he would later ask us, 'What did you say again?'" she tells Yahoo Life. "We started to realize that we couldn't trust whether he would do things like take his pills."

Now, Russell says that Grove has "progressed probably halfway into dementia," noting that he "lives in the past." Russell, who is a grandmother, says that if she mentions "the kids went bowling," he'll think she's referring to her brothers, who are in their late 60s and early 70s.

He also often thinks his late wife is still alive. "He's still calling her cellphone, wondering where she is," Russell says. "He looks for her all the time. It's very sad."

Russell says it's "frightening" to care for someone with dementia. "You don't know from day to day if he's going to remember to take his pills, and he forgets to eat and use the bathroom," she says. Russell also says that her feelings are hurt "all the time" that her father doesn't remember certain things, but she tries to remember that he can't help his memory loss.

So, she regularly puts up pictures of family members on his fridge and will often show him photos while telling stories to try to help connect names with faces. "I try to be very specific with names, where people live and what they look like," Russell says.

It can be confusing to try to tell the signs of age-related memory loss from dementia, but it's possible. Here's how to distinguish the two, according to experts.

What is dementia?

Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering and reasoning — to the point that it interferes with a person's life and daily activities, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Some people with dementia can't control their emotions and may have a change in personality. And, as with many health conditions, there is a range with dementia, from just beginning to impact a person's functioning to its most severe stage, which is when a person must completely depend on others, according to the NIA. Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia.

Dementia becomes more common as people age, but it's not considered a normal part of aging, the NIA says.

What is age-related memory loss?

Age-related memory loss "can be hard to define, as it can cause different symptoms for different people," Dr. Arun Ramamurthy, a neurologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. But, he says, "usually, if the symptoms are moments of forgetfulness or memory loss, without any impact in your functioning or daily life, that is probably age-related memory loss."

How to tell age-related memory loss from dementia

Everyone is forgetful sometimes, Dr. Amit Sachdev, the director of the division of neuromuscular medicine at Michigan State University, tells Yahoo Life, and it doesn't necessarily mean you're developing dementia. "Age-related memory loss includes senior moments," he says. "This can include forgetting small details, times, dates or some names." Losing your keys here and there or briefly getting lost in a random moment can also be considered part of age-related memory loss, Ramamurthy says.

"If it is not consistent or if you are able to remind yourself and get back on track, this is usually not concerning," he adds.

"The main difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that in normal aging, the forgetfulness does not interfere with your ability to carry on with normal daily activities," Dr. Verna Porter, neurologist and director of programs for dementia, Alzheimer's disease and neurocognitive disorders at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "In contrast, dementia is characterized by marked, persistent and disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities, such as memory, language, judgment or abstract reasoning, that significantly interfere with and disrupt your normal daily activities."

For example, someone with dementia may have difficulty driving, paying bills and remembering if they ate, Ramamurthy says.

When to see a doctor for memory loss

Experts say it's never a bad idea to check in with your doctor if you are a bit worried about memory loss. "If you or your loved one are concerned, talk to your doctor," Sachdev says. "There are many easily treatable reasons for memory issues, including medication, vitamin deficiency and stress." Meaning, there may be some other factor in your memory loss that your doctor can pinpoint and help treat.

Porter also recommends seeing a doctor if you or a loved one are doing the following:

  • Repetitively asking the same question.

  • Forgetting a word, phrase or idea when speaking.

  • Inserting the wrong word in conversation, like saying "chair" instead of "sofa," for example.

  • Taking longer to complete daily chores, tasks or affairs, like paying bills or getting the mail.

  • Frequently misplacing objects around the house.

  • Getting lost while walking or driving in relatively familiar areas.

  • Having sudden or unexplained changes in mood, personality or behavior without a clear reason.

If you have a history of multiple family members with dementia, Ramamurthy recommends having a screening visit with your primary care physician once you turn 65, regardless of whether you have symptoms.

"If the screening evaluation is abnormal or your doctor has concerns, they will refer you to a neurologist, and we can do more extensive testing," he says. "Even if an extensive workup is completely negative for any dementia, it is still important to establish a baseline in case there are any changes in the future."

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