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Memory in Aging

Many people believe that dementia is a normal part of aging. This is not the case. Not all older people become "senile" and in fact in many cultures, elders are the keepers of great wisdom. The reality is that some people will develop a cognitive disorder in later life while others will not.

While dementia is not a normal part of the aging process, some cognitive changes are part of normal aging. The most common change is the slowing or decline in the speed of processing information. This is evident when more time is given for a senior to answer a question or perform a task. It is not the lack of understanding actual information but the length of time it may take to process.

It is therefore important to remember that a senior most likely understands material as well as his younger counterpart, but may take longer to absorb its content. Seniors may need additional time or smaller chunks of information when being presented with new material.

Recall and Reaction in Aging

In addition to slower processing speeds, normal cognitive decline in seniors may show up in recall and reaction speed. Information seems to linger on the tip of your parent's tongue. The senior may know the answer to a question but cannot quite pull it out of his mental filing cabinet. Reaction time may be slowed.

This may have implications for performance on some activities that require quick decisions or changes in attention. One such activity is driving. The age-related cognitive decline should be mild and shouldn't interfere with day to day functioning.

Normal aging also may bring decline in vision and hearing abilities. A senior who has difficulty with seeing or hearing may also have resulting difficulty in learning information. This may appear as cognitive decline when it is in fact not. Whenever possible, the use of hearing aids or glasses should remedy these difficulties.

What is Dementia

Dementia is a pervasive and progressive deterioration of intellectual ability that occurs over an extended period of time. Dementia is NOT a part of the normal aging process.

Dementia often begins with symptoms of memory loss but is not limited to this. Memory loss is often the first and most obvious cognitive change noticed by a family member.

Other symptoms generally accompany dementia such as changes in a person's orientation with place and time, language functioning, loss of ability to think abstractly and solve problems, power to exercise good judgment, changes in visual and spatial ability, and changes in personality.

Dementia is an umbrella diagnosis which has several types. Alzheimer's Disease is one type of dementia. To better understand the term "dementia" is to say, all Alzheimer's Disease is dementia, but not all dementia is Alzheimer's.

Causes of Dementia

The type of dementia is based upon the presenting symptoms and the categorization of the suspected underlying disease that caused it.

Many times causes of dementia are difficult to determine. Some dementias are treatable, while others are not. Some treatable forms of dementia are toxic, metabolic, depression-related, and medication-induced.

Some forms of toxic dementia may be over exposure to alcohol, drugs, or heavy-metals. Metabolic related dementia may result from thyroid disease or vitamin B-12 deficiency as an example. A senior may present with dementia-like symptoms in the context of a depressive episode.

The most common and reversible type of dementia is medication-induced dementia. If identified early, intervention can result from a conversation with the senior’s physician or pharmacist.

A proactive approach to reduce the occurrence of this dementia, might be to manage the senior’s medication early on, and have the medications reviewed regularly.

Irreversible Dementias

While treatable dementias may include toxic, metabolic, depressive, or medication-induced, there are some dementias that are not treatable.

The dementia that most are familiar with is Alzheimer's disease (AD). Other types of dementia include Parksinson's disease, dementia with Lewy bodies, vascular dementia, infection or injury-related dementias.

AD is the most common form of dementia followed by vascular dementia which is caused by decreased blood flow in the brain in such diagnoses as stroke.

Listening and Dementia

Do you remember a time when you were trained to practice "active" listening rather than "passive" listening? Active listening is not only beneficial in the professional work environment, but also plays an important role in communicating with those with dementia.

Listening begins with silence. Focus on what they are telling you and do not interrupt. Paraphrasing or repeating back what the person has said to you, even if it doesn't make sense, shows that you have heard what they are telling you. The goal is to show that you care and respect what they have to say.

It also may help you to understand their point of reference. It is common to feel the need to argue or to provide correction when what is said does not make sense. People with dementia often get facts wrong or remember events incorrectly. It is okay.

There is no reason to insist upon being right. Step in to the other person's world and honor their memory no matter if it is their own creation. Who knows, maybe their version is more interesting!