The first time your parent forgets to turn off the stove is scary — maybe they were just in a rush. But when they start mistaking your brother for their brother, it’s harder to pretend it was just a memory lapse.
It’s a mix of emotions noticing your mom or dad’s memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be, and talking to them about these changes may seem intimidating, especially considering they raised you.
But not all people with memory loss have Alzheimer’s. Dementia is an umbrella term for the disease through which cognitive function and the ability to perform everyday activities undergo a deterioration. Indeed, Alzheimer’s disease falls underneath that umbrella, as do Lewy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and vascular dementia. That’s why getting a prompt diagnosis and appropriate care is important.
Here’s a closer look at the differences between mild cognitive impairment and the different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease dementia, as well as signs that it might be time to talk to a doctor.
Dementia is a general term — not a specific disease — for a group of symptoms that affect memory, thinking, and social abilities severely enough to interfere with everyday life.
Although a common symptom of dementia is aging memory loss, other symptoms interfere with a person’s daily life and activities, including:
- Less motivation and lack of initiative
- Changes in thinking skills
- Poor judgment and reasoning skills
- Decreased concentration and attention span
- Disorientation and/or decreased spatial awareness
- Changes in language and communication skills
- Mood changes, such as depression and/or anxiety
Many types of dementia are progressive, which means that the symptoms start out slowly and gradually get worse. For a person to be diagnosed with dementia, a doctor must find that they have two or three cognitive areas in decline.
If your parent is experiencing memory difficulties or other changes in thinking skills, such as having problems with short-term memory, keeping track of a purse or wallet, paying bills, planning and preparing meals, remembering appointments, or traveling out of the neighborhood, don’t ignore them. See a doctor soon to determine the cause.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of cases. The hallmark symptom of Alzheimer’s, especially in the early stages, is forgetting recently learned information.
As Alzheimer’s progresses, the following may occur:
- Loss of abstract thinking, such as losing the ability to balance a checkbook.
- Disorientation. Maybe they forget where they are and how they got there.
- Lack of initiative. This might show up as sitting in front of the television for hours or sleeping more than usual.
- Language problems, for example, saying “that thing for my mouth” instead of my toothbrush.
- Misplacing items, such as putting an iron in the freezer or a watch in the sugar bowl.
- Mood swings. They might go from calm to tears to anger for no apparent reason.
- Personality changes. Perhaps they are becoming suspicious or fearful of a family member.
- Poor judgment, such as wearing several shirts on a warm day or giving away large amounts of money to telemarketers.
Eventually, Alzheimer’s affects almost all aspects of brain functioning and the ability to perform the most basic activities of daily living.
If you notice one or more signs in your parent, it’s important to make an appointment with the doctor. Getting checked by the doctor can help determine if the symptoms are due to Alzheimer’s or some other — perhaps even treatable — condition.
Parkinson’s Disease Dementia
Parkinson’s disease is a brain disorder that leads to shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with walking, balance, and coordination. As the brain changes caused by the disease progresses, they often begin to affect mental functions, including memory and the ability to pay attention, make sound judgments and plan the steps needed to complete a task.
Parkinson’s disease dementia is a decline in thinking and reasoning that develops in many people living with Parkinson’s at least a year after diagnosis. It’s estimated that anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of people with Parkinson’s may experience dementia.
Common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease dementia include:
- Changes in memory, concentration, and judgment
- Trouble interpreting visual information
- Muffled speech
- Visual hallucinations
- Delusions, especially paranoid ideas
- Irritability and anxiety
- Sleep disturbances
If your loved one has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and you notice a significant change in their ability to think, reason, or concentrate; in problem-solving; in memory; in use of language; in mood; or in behavior or personality, then you should schedule an appointment with their doctor.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Mild cognitive impairment is the stage between normal age-related memory loss and the more serious decline of dementia.
Although someone with mild cognitive impairment might experience memory loss, the changes don’t disrupt daily life or independent function. Generally, they tend to retain critical thinking and reasoning skills but experience significant short-term memory loss. Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment include:
- Trouble remembering the names of people they meet or the flow of a conversation
- Increased tendency to misplace things
- Forgetting to go to events or appointments
- Having more trouble coming up with words than other people of the same age
- Relying more on a calendar, notes, and lists
Having mild cognitive impairment doesn’t prevent you from performing everyday tasks and being socially engaged. However, it can eventually progress to dementia, so it’s important to see a neurologist or a geriatrician if you notice any of these symptoms.
Caring for Someone with Aging Memory Loss
Caring for a loved one with memory loss can be challenging. And if they have dementia, which is a progressive disease, it’s only going to get harder over time.
For some people, dementia progresses rapidly. For others, it takes years to reach an advanced stage. One of the biggest challenges for family caregivers of older adults with dementia is not knowing what’s going to happen next.
That’s why it’s so important to develop a plan for future care with your loved one while they are able to participate. You’ll need to consider financial and legal issues, safety and daily living concerns, and long-term care options.
For several worksheets that you can complete with the help of your parents, including a personal record of where your loved one keeps their important documents, download Getting Your Affairs in Order: A Guide to Advance Care Planning and Emergency Preparedness.