This Simple Test May Help Determine if You Have Dementia, Experts Say

Here's how to know whether it's normal aging or cause for concern.

Dementia is not a single, specific disease, but is instead a general term for problems with memory, thinking, and decision making that interfere with everyday life. As an umbrella term with such a broad definition, it's easy to see why some people have difficulty distinguishing between dementia and normal memory lapses, which may seem to increase with age. Now, experts are sharing the features that separate dementia from everyday forgetfulness, including one simple test that can reveal a deeper problem. Read on to learn when it's time to seek a professional assessment for your memory loss or other symptoms.

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Dementia and normal aging are distinct from one another.

Man Suffering With Dementia Trying To Dress

Many different types of dementia exist, and they present with a wide range of symptoms. In their earliest stages, some of these may appear similar to the normal effects of aging, though experts say they are decidedly distinct.

"Normal, age-related memory changes are very different from dementia," says Verna Porter, MD, neurologist and director of Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. "The main difference between age-related memory loss and dementia (such as Alzheimer's disease) is that in normal aging the forgetfulness does not interfere with your ability to carry on with normal daily activities.

In other words, the memory lapses have little impact on your daily life, or your ability to carry on the usual chores, tasks, and routines that comprise our daily lives," Porter tells Best 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."

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Here's another simple way to flag a more serious problem.

A senior woman sitting in a chair after feeling dizzy

Max Lugavere, the New York Times bestselling author of Genius Foods and The Genius Life, has written extensively on the topic of dementia. Though he made clear that this in no way constitutes an official diagnostic test, he offered his own simple rule of thumb for distinguishing between dementia and everyday forgetfulness.

"An adage that I've heard is that if you forget where your keys are, that can be attributed to normal aging. But if you forget what your keys are for, that's when you should go and seek out the diagnosis of a neurologist," the author told Best Life.

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People with even mild dementia usually require assistance in their daily lives.

A senior man wearing glasses sitting behind the wheel of a car

Porter notes that people with even mild dementia are likely to need assistance in their everyday lives. Since memory and problem solving are needed for more complex tasks, this often becomes clear in instances that require more advanced coordination, such as handling finances or traveling.

For safety reasons, it's important to be assessed by a neurologist promptly if cognitive difficulties do arise in these instances. Porter notes that in particular, it may be unsafe to drive, given that "visuospatial and visuoperceptual declines and difficulties with reaction speed may start to manifest relatively early in the disease."

Look out for these signs that it's time to seek care.

A senior woman speaking with a doctor about what she's forgetting due to dementia or Alzheimer's disease

There are several red flags that suggest it's time to seek out medical care for mild cognitive changes. According to Porter, these include repetitively asking the same question, forgetting a word, phrase, or idea when speaking, using the wrong word in conversation, taking longer to complete daily chores or tasks, frequently misplacing objects, getting lost while walking or driving in relatively familiar areas, or having sudden changes in mood, personality, or behavior with a clear reason for them.

"When memory loss becomes so pervasive that it begins to disrupt your work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, this may suggest the warning signs of an evolving dementia syndrome or a condition that mimics dementia," says Porter.

In other words, any forgetfulness that alarms you or impacts your day-to-day life is worth discussing with your doctor.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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