Cognitive Decline in Seniors: Dementia and Alzheimer’s

A recent study from the Global Burden of Disease found that between 1990 and 2013, there was a 92 percent increase in the number of dementia-related deaths and years lived with disability due to dementia. Currently, 47.5 million people worldwide suffer from dementia, and that number is expected to nearly triple by 2050. In 2015 Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia will cost the United States $226 billion.

“In less than a quarter of a century we have seen a staggering increase in the number of people living with dementia globally,” said Dr. James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society. “With an aging population, dementia is fast becoming the biggest health and social care challenge of this generation.”

Dementia is commonly and incorrectly referred to as “senility” or “senile dementia.” If a senior forgets something, their loved ones may say he is “just being senile.” This furthers the idea that any type of memory loss or confusion at an old age is normal rather than associating it with dementia. Dementia is caused by brain cell death. Because the brain can produce new cells at any age, significant memory loss is not an inevitable part of aging.

Dementia is not a disease itself, but rather an umbrella term that describes a broad range of symptoms associated with memory loss and cognitive decline so severe that the person has trouble performing activities of daily living. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, accounting for over 60 percent of all cases. Vascular dementia is the next most common, which usually occurs after a stroke. However, there are many other conditions that can cause symptoms of dementia, including reversible ones like thyroid problems and vitamin deficiencies.


Alzheimer’s is the most known form of dementia because it is the most common, especially among those 65 and older. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a new case is developed every 67 seconds. Most people begin to develop symptoms after age 60, but there are early-onset forms. Like other forms of dementia, the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown. Loss of brain cells leads to the brain shrinking. It progresses slowly over a period of around eight to ten years, in which cognitive abilities decline, and affected areas of the brain stop working properly. These include the parts of the brain controlling memory, language, judgement, and spatial abilities. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the US.

Normal Aging and Cognitive Skills

With the rising cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s, many seniors may begin to worry that any sign of memory impairment means they are developing some form of dementia. However, it is important to remember that while aging brings on a mild amount of memory loss for most seniors, it is only when more severe symptoms arise that seniors or their loved ones should worry.

Some seniors may be diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), which is an intermediate level between normal age-related memory loss and dementia. Short-term memory is usually affected, but the person can still perform normal day-to-day activities. In 44 percent of MCI cases, it progresses to Alzheimer’s within three years. However, that means that over 50 percent of people with MCI still do not develop Alzheimer’s or dementia.


Normal age-related memory changes Symptoms that may indicate dementia
Able to function independently and pursue normal activities, despite occasional memory lapses Difficulty performing simple tasks (paying bills, dressing appropriately, washing up); forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times
Able to recall and describe incidents of forgetfulness Unable to recall or describe specific instances where memory loss caused problems
May pause to remember directions, but doesn’t get lost in familiar places Gets lost or disoriented even in familiar places; unable to follow directions
Occasional difficulty finding the right word, but no trouble holding a conversation Words are frequently forgotten, misused, or garbled; Repeats phrases and stories in same conversation
Judgment and decision-making ability the same as always Trouble making choices; May show poor judgment or behave in socially inappropriate ways



Some of the early warning signs of dementia include: missing sarcasm in conversation, frequent falling, staring, disregard for obeying the law, eating objects, losing knowledge, losing empathy, ignoring embarrassment for self or others, compulsive or obsessive behaviors, trouble handling finances, and difficulty speaking. If seniors or their loved ones notice some of these behaviors, it is best to consult a doctor for further consultation. Even if all the symptoms are not present, it is best to take steps to keep a small problem from becoming a larger one.

Living with Dementia

Unfortunately, there is no cure for dementia. In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s is the only top ten cause of death that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed. Aging and certain genetic factors are what generally cause the different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. Even though there is no guaranteed way to prevent dementia, one can reduce the risk of developing it by eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check, and avoiding smoking and drinking too much alcohol.

It is important for seniors to consult their doctors to evaluate symptoms. Early diagnosis can treat and even eliminate reversible causes of memory loss, such as depression, Vitamin B12 deficiency, thyroid problems, alcohol abuse, dehydration, and side effects from medication. Decline from vascular dementia can be lessened by early diagnosis, and quality of life can be improved in those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other types.

In most cases, seniors with dementia need assistance with activities of daily living. Companies like Amada Senior Care provide quality caregivers that can help seniors remain in their homes as long as possible by assisting with bathing, dressing, meal preparation and medication reminders. If medical care is needed outside of the home, Amada Senior Care’s advisors can help seniors and their families find the best assisted-living options available for their situation.


Written by Taylor French, Amada contributor. 

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