7 Ways To Tell The Difference Between Early-Onset Dementia And Age-Related Memory Loss
by Carina Wolff
A woman with dementia and memory loss holding her head with her hands
BDG Media, Inc.

As you get older, you may find that you forget information more easily, which might send you into a panic. But just because your memory isn't as sharp doesn't necessarily mean there's something wrong with you. There a number of ways to tell the difference between dementia and common memory loss, especially for early-onset dementia. Even if you're having trouble remembering what you did last week, you might just be experiencing some regular spaciness that comes with age.

The term "early-onset dementia" refers to dementia that first occurs when a person is under 65. Most people with young-onset dementia tend to have Alzheimer's disease, and it is often genetic. However, this is still pretty rare, as only about five percent of the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s have younger-onset, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

"[Age-related memory loss] is differentiated from dementia through careful neurological and/or neuropsychological evaluation," Dr. Richard Durant, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Caregiver Support Initiative, tells Bustle. "People who are experiencing normal age-related memory loss may sometimes make bad decisions or poor judgments, miss a monthly payment on occasion, forget which day it is and remember it later, sometimes forget which word to use mid-conversation, or lose things from time-to-time. Essentially, the symptoms are not as severe as dementia."

Here are seven ways to tell the difference between early-onset dementia and age-related memory loss.


Frequency Of Forgetfulness

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How often someone forgets something can be an indicator of whether or not they have dementia. "If someone loses their car keys and finds them later, that may be more age-related changes," Dr. Richard Isaacson, Director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center tells Bustle. "If someone consistently loses their keys or cell phones and never finds them and this keeps getting worse over time, that may be more consistent with an early-onset dementia."


Underlying Factors

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"A normal slip in memory is usually caused by some underlying factor that is preventing us from paying full attention to the environment around us," Nicole Absar, M.D., medical director of the Senator William and Ellen Proxmire Neurocognitive Clinic at Integrace Copper Ridge, tells Bustle. "Stress, sleep deprivation, sensory impairments like difficulty hearing or seeing, emotional or attention disorders like depression or ADHD, drug side effects, or another underlying illness can all prevent us from fully receiving information, which means we can’t retain it." If regular memory loss is occurring without any of these factors present, talk to your doctor about the possibility of early-onset dementia.


The Presence Of Other Symptoms

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Memory loss alone may not indicate dementia, as memory loss is only one symptom of early-onset dementia. "There are many types of dementia, and the types that are most likely to present early, typically affect other cognitive domains of the brain that don’t have anything to do with memory," says Absar. These can include sudden changes in personality and behavior, changes in language, and difficulty with walking or balance. If you are experiencing any of these things, do not panic. Speaking with your doctor can help you to figure out the best course of treatment.


The Timeline Of Changes

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If memory changes come on suddenly, it may be more likely to be dementia than if memory decreases over time. "Frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, is a type of dementia that tends to present at an early age and affects the parts of the brain associated with behavior, movement, visual spatial functioning, and sequential motor tasks," says Absar. "Some undiagnosed patients will experience such an extreme change in personality or behavior that they end up in the criminal system, or a psychiatric hospital before anyone thinks to examine their brain for a neurocognitive disorder." Of course this isn't the case for everyone, but if you or someone you know does not seem to be acting like themselves, talk with a doctor to get to the bottom of why.


Family History

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If there is a family history of diseases like Alzheimer's, early-onset dementia is more likely. "Not always, but when Alzheimer’s disease presents at an early age, it is more likely to have a genetic cause than traditional Alzheimer’s," says Absar. So ask around to see what your genetic risk factors may be, and discuss them with your doctor.


Ability To Complete Common Tasks

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Early-onset dementia can lead to the inability to perform certain tasks that were at one point easy, such as finding directions, solving problems, managing finances, performing previously mastered tasks at work, etc. "In memory loss due to aging, the general processing speed may slow down, one may have occasional difficulty recalling new names or ideas, and once in a while, one may lose track of thought in a conversation," Ayesha Sherzai, MD author of The Alzheimer’s Solution, tells Bustle. "But generally one is able to carry out all the activities of daily living without much difficulty."



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Blanking on an acquaintances name is one thing; forgetting a family member's is another. "[In age-related memory loss], words may be on the tip of a person’s tongue, but they remember the word later," says Isaacson. "Or, the speed with which a person remembers something is slower than in the past, or it takes that person longer to learn something new compared with when they were younger. These symptoms are more suggestive of an age-related change, rather than the pathologic change of a neurodegenerative disease causing an early-onset dementia."

It is important to remember that early-onset dementia is rare, but if you or someone you know is having difficulties with memory, accompanied by some of the other symptoms above, talking with your doctor is the best thing you can do to look after your health.