Alzheimer's Vs. Normal Aging: How to Tell the Difference

Everyone's memory gets worse with age, so how can you tell the difference between normal aging and signs of Alzheimer's disease?

There definitely is a distinction between the two, experts say. "Alzheimer's disease is not normal aging," said Heather Snyder, senior associate director of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer's Association.

Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia, a general term for a condition in which someone develops cognitive problems as a result of changes in the brain. Alzheimer's is thought to be caused by the buildup of toxic proteins in the brain.

The most common symptom of Alzheimer's is difficultly remembering things , particularly new information, such as an appointment you have made. While people who are aging normally may forget things as well, they will typically remember them later -- in other words, you remember that you forgot.

But in some people with Alzheimer's disease , that doesn't happen. "You forget something and then you don't get that information back, it doesn't seem familiar to you even if someone reminds you," Snyder said.

Another example might be forgetting to pay your monthly bills, which would be a sign of normal aging, versus forgetting how to pay your bills or how to manage your budget, which would be a sign of Alzheimer's, Snyder said.

Snyder stresses that Alzheimer's affects individuals differently, so not everyone will have the same symptoms. If you are concerned that you or a family member is experiencing signs of Alzheimer's, you should speak with a health care professional, Snyder said.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, other signs of Alzheimer's disease include:

  • Difficulty completing tasks: People with Alzheimer's may have difficulty with everyday tasks, such as driving to the grocery store. "You've gone to the same grocery store for 20 years, and suddenly you're not quite sure how to get to that grocery store, or you're not quite sure how to get home," Snyder said. Those who are aging normally may sometimes need help with tasks, such as figuring out how to record a TV show, the Alzheimer's Association says.
  • Trouble with words: Those with Alzheimer's disease may have trouble engaging in conversation, stopping in the middle or repeating themselves. They may also call an object by the wrong name. Someone who is experiencing normal aging may occasionally have trouble thinking of exactly what they want to say, Snyder said.
  • Misplacing things: Sometimes those with Alzheimer's disease may misplace something, and then not be able to find it later because they don't identify the object, such as a purse, as their own, Snyder said. Other times, they lose something and can't retrace their steps to find it. Or they may even forget that they need the object they have lost. "We all lose our keys and our glasses...but losing my glasses and not even necessarily remembering that I need glasses might be an example," of a sign of Alzheimer's, Snyder said.
  • Trouble with visual perception: Those with Alzheimer's may have trouble judging distances or determining the height of a stair or a curb, Snyder said. Or they might think someone else is in the room when they walk by a mirror. People who age normally may have trouble seeing due to cataracts.

Those with questions about their symptoms can also contact the Alzheimer's Association at: 800.272.3900.

Pass it on: Alzheimer's disease is distinct from normal aging. Those who are concerned they may have symptoms of Alzheimer's should speak with their doctor.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.