10 Signs Your Brain Is Aging Faster Than You Are
Here's how to tell the difference between normal signs of aging and clues that may point to diseases.
A little memory loss is normal
First things first: There’s a big difference between the brain changes of normal aging and the cognitive disruptions of diseases like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. “In a normal, healthy brain, the major thing that happens as we get older is our neurons slow down a bit,” says Michael R. Wasserman, MD, board member of the American Geriatrics Society’s Health in Aging Foundation. Such slowing could mean taking a bit longer to process or react to new information. But Dr. Wasserman is quick to add two crucial points. One: Everyone is different. “I’ve met plenty of 100-year-olds who are sharp as a tack.” And two: Cognitive problems that make it harder to get through your day, such as the following signs and symptoms, shouldn’t be accepted as part of aging; they should be taken as a signal to see your doctor.
Short-term memory loss
When it comes to disorders of the older brain, Alzheimer’s disease is a biggie, and it has a pretty clear early warning sign. “The area of the brain Alzheimer’s affects most is short-term memory,” says Dr. Wasserman. “So the major early symptom of the disease is short-term memory loss—that’s what everyone notices.” This could include everything from forgetting the day’s events to an inability to recall instructions. Repeating questions or forgetting recent conversations are also among the indicators, says David M. Holtzman, MD, Professor and Chairman, Department of Neurology, Washington University in St. Louis. “This can be caused by dysfunction in the medial temporal lobe, frequently among the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease as well as some other brain disorders,” he explains.
Long-term memory loss
If your memory problems extend to things that happened years or decades in the past, it’s possible you might be dealing with a different type of dementia, says Dr. Wasserman. “For people with Alzheimer’s, long-term memory tends to hold out, but with other forms of dementia you may have more long-term memory issues.” Multi-infarct dementia—caused by multiple strokes that interrupt blood supply resulting in damaged brain tissue—is probably the best example because the strokes may hit part of the brain responsible for long-term memory, he explains. Note that the type of long-term memory loss that’s significant is important memories and events in your life.
Trouble finding words
Even a healthy 40-year-old can catch herself having trouble coming up with someone’s name. But later in life, difficulty remembering vocabulary basics—like words for often-used items from “toaster” to “steering wheel”—could be a sign of cognitive problems. “This is caused by difficulty in the parts of the brain that control language, usually in the left temporal or parietal lobe, and it can also be the first sign of Alzheimer’s disease, other neurodegenerative disorders, a structural brain lesion or stroke-related damage,” Dr. Holtzman explains.
Botching the checkbook
Another early sign of Alzheimer’s could be problems with executive function, which lives in a brain region called the prefrontal cortex. “Executive function is higher-level thinking,” says Dr. Wasserman. “So if someone is having trouble managing the checkbook or reasoning through decisions, those are the sorts of things you’ll see in the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s.” (These are the habits you never knew were aging your brain.)
People with dementia may not realize they’re having trouble behind the wheel, but family and friends could observe potential problems, says the National Institute on Aging (NIA). While a number of physical factors can contribute to an older adult’s declining ability to drive—from joint stiffness to vision problems—Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia can also cause on-the-road issues by impacting memory and decision-making skills. If an older adult is showing signs of driving problems, such as forgetting how to find familiar places, loved ones should contact their doctor to determine if it’s no longer safe to be behind the wheel, the NIA urges.
Mood and personality changes
Feeling down or even apathetic could also be a cause for concern. “Becoming more passive or developing a new depression in an elderly person can be additional signs of cognitive disorders,” explains Dr. Holtzman. “This could be caused by changes in the frontal lobe, amygdala, and other structures due to Alzheimer’s disease or other brain conditions.” Here’s how negative thoughts could be aging you, too.
Bothersome balance issues
When it comes to other types of dementia, some physical symptoms may also flare up. With multi-infarct dementia, for example, a disruption in mental function may be accompanied by physical clues such as loss of balance. Lewy body dementia, a progressive condition in which abnormal protein deposits accumulate in the brain, is often accompanied by some Parkinson’s disease-like characteristics, adds Dr. Wasserman. “So people may have some rigidity and tremor in the extremities or some hallucinations, especially auditory hallucinations,” he explains.
Lost sense of smell
Not only could a decline in your ability to smell be an early sign of the degenerative disorder Parkinson’s disease, the area of your brain responsible for smell is also affected by Alzheimer’s. Indeed, a pair of 2016 studies suggested physicians may be able to screen patients for Alzheimer’s by testing their ability to identify common scents, like coffee, smoke, and raspberries, according to research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.
While there can be many different causes of hearing loss—from infection to a perforated eardrum—Alzheimer’s disease may be one of them, according to a 2015 study in the Journal of Epidemiology. The plaques in the brain associated with this condition could interfere with the hearing center’s ability to function.
When it’s time to call the doctor
If there’s one point Dr. Wasserman wants to make clear, it’s that cognitive changes like memory loss or confusion that interfere with your normal routine should not be accepted as just another part of getting older. “No one should have the sense that significant loss of brain function is associated with normal aging—it’s just an absolute untruth,” he says. Dr. Holtzman adds that cognitive changes affecting daily life are a reason to talk to your doctor to find out what the real problems are. “A decline in memory and thinking that is noticeable by others and is a clear change from previous function should prompt investigation into whether there is a reason beyond just normal aging that may account for such a change,” he urges. Next, check out these anti-aging tips to keep your brain young.
- Michael R. Wasserman, MD, board member of the American Geriatrics Society's Health in Aging Foundation
- David M. Holtzman, MD, Professor and Chairman, Department of Neurology, Washington University in St. Louis
- National Institute on Aging (NIA): "Older Drivers"
- Alzheimer's Association International Conference: "SMELL AND EYE TESTS ONE STEP CLOSER FOR DETECTION OF MEMORY DECLINE AND DEMENTIA"
- Journal of Epidemiology: "Hearing Loss is Associated With Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease: A Case-Control Study in Older People"