One of the challenges with identifying and diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease or any other form of dementia is that there is a common misconception that memory loss is a normal sign of aging. Modern medicine and diagnostic testing have advanced so much in the last decade, that when identified early, those who suffer from dementia can have a much better prognosis and quality of life. In today’s post, we would like to take the opportunity to address common misconceptions about what is normal in aging and what is a sign or symptom of something that should be addressed.
It is important to note that as modern medicine allows people to live longer, ailments and deterioration is more likely to happen over a lifetime, meaning that some of the things we will discuss are much more common in the elderly. The purpose of this post is to begin the discussion that aging is not the reason for most deterioration, but other factors play a big role and the symptoms should not be dismissed as “normal.” If you have any concerns about you or your parent’s health, contact your medical provider to ask questions today! Okay, let’s dive right in.
The Aging Process and Changes in Condition
Aging is the process of getting older and the number is the only thing that is consistent and “normal.” There are a variety of processes and condition changes as people age, brought on by hormonal shifts and exposure to life and the surrounding environment, however, aging looks different for everyone. Think of both sets of your grandparents and how each of them aged differently. Did they participate in different activities, had an old injury that caused a permanent limp, or wore glasses? It is not surprising that most people can recognize that the injury-caused limp is an abnormal part of aging and caused by a specific injury sustained by just that one person. But, this is the same idea with all of the changes that happen as we age.
Each person has three different ages, and normal aging can be explained using each one. Chronologic age is simply your age in the number of years since your birth. Biologic age is expressed in physiologic changes that occur, including puberty, menopause, and other physical maturities. And, psychologic age is the age at which people act and feel. This is not to say that an 80-year-old can identify as 14, but in terms of “young” and “old,” the spectrum of thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes varies greatly. For instance, a 40-year-old first-time mom is likely to be psychologically younger than her counterpart who is expecting their first grandchild. Likewise, an 80-year-old who has goals for the future and works towards them is psychologically younger than their counterpart who is convinced that 80 is nearing the end of their lifespan.
There are many factors that influence the normal aging process including genes, lifestyle, and exposure. Heredity and genetics influence our biology and can provide insight into what is normal changes and what may indicate disease. Lifestyle has a big impact on how quickly one ages and what changes are a result. The biggest lifestyle influences on age are habits, job, diet, exercise, and outlook. Exposure is what happens at work, what toxins you are exposed to throughout your life, including the sun, drinking water, and air quality, and injuries that are sustained throughout your lifetime.
Hair that changes color as we age is caused by the deterioration of pigments that color our locks. While greying hair is common in older people, it can happen as early as high school age, but appears more as people age due to thinning hair and the number of follicles affected. Chances are, you know someone well into their 70s who has a full head of thick, dark hair as well as someone in their 40s who is almost completely silver. If you notice more grey, white, or silver hair, it is not cause for concern, but there are things you can do to prevent it. Protect your hair from the sun, avoid over washing it, quit smoking, and ensure adequate vitamin B levels.
Bone and Joint Issues
Bone density loss and joint cartilage degeneration is, unfortunately, a completely normal part of aging. Guided mostly by hormone changes through puberty and menopause, the bones may lose calcium and other minerals while cartilage and muscles become less elastic and slower to regenerate, resulting in a decrease in flexibility. Bones may become more brittle and may break more easily. Use, injury, and lifestyle habits can greatly influence degeneration. Those who have good nutrition habits and ensure their vitamin levels remain consistent tend to have fewer issues, as well as those who remain physically active.
As we age, the lens of the eye thickens and stiffens, which can make our eye less able to focus on close objects. This normal sign of aging is referred to as prebyopia, and may result in the need to wear reading glasses or a decrease in night vision. However, other visual changes are not “normal” but are the result of something such as sun exposure, blue-light exposure, trauma, or disease. It is recommended to have regular vision exams and consult with your optometrist about things you can do to slow or prevent degenerative eye disease. For instance, wearing sunglasses and limiting screen time can dramatically reduce eye issues as you age. If you or your parent has visual changes, don’t ignore these symptoms, consult your optometrist or primary care doctor.
Wrinkles are widely accepted as a normal sign of aging and, for most, it is the tell-tale sign of someone’s “true age.” As we age, gravity has had more time to tug at our skin and we generally produce less collagen and elastin as we age, making skin less firm and more flexible, increasing chances of leaving permanent wrinkles. While wrinkles are not a medical concern, nor a reason to consult your doctor, they aren’t exactly inevitable either. Protecting your skin from the sun and keeping it well-hydrated can help prevent and reduce the number and appearance of wrinkles.
Hearing loss in aging adults is usually gradual, so it becomes more common as we age, but is not necessarily normal. One in three adults will experience gradual hearing loss by the time they are 60. There are no structural or biological changes in the ear or ear canal that causes hearing loss, but rather a gradual change in how sounds are heard. For instance, a lifetime of exposure to loud or consistent noise can result in noise-induced hearing loss, as well as trauma to the inner ear or eardrum, including using cotton swabs to clean or remove earwax. If you notice changes in your hearing, visit your medical provider to see if there is a cause for it. Conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and some medications can affect hearing, so symptoms should not be ignored.
As we age, information processing may begin to slow and may be evident in the reduced ability to multitask. However, knowledge, memory, and attention span generally remain intact in a healthy brain. Minor memory lapses such as the slowed ability to recall a word or where you put your keys is not much cause for concern and is more than likely a result of split attention or a lack of paying attention to irrelevant details. However, when memory lapses affect your daily life or you find yourself forgetting simple things, this may be an early warning sign of dementia and worth looking into. There are many causes of dementia, some are fleeting, such as a nutrient imbalance or acute condition, while others are more significant like Alzheimer’s disease. In either event, cognitive decline is not a normal part of aging and should never be ignored.
If you notice changes in yourself or your loved one as you age, it is important to discuss these changes as early as you notice them, with your medical provider. For many things, catching the cause early and intervening can help slow or even reverse symptoms. If your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of age-related cognitive impairment, you can find support from the caring staff at Serenity Gardens Memory Care Assisted Living. Our staff is attentive and well attuned to what is the normal aging process and what is cause for concern. Contact us to learn more about our services in Friendswood and Dickinson today!