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Dementia vs normal aging


When I worked for the Alzheimer’s Association and then when I worked for the Alzheimer’s Alliance, the question I received the most often went something like this:  “I keep misplacing my keys and I’m worried that I may be developing dementia.” My response is always that misplacing your keys is not a sign of dementia. If you pick up your keys and forget what they are used for, that would be a sign of dementia.

Think of your brain as a big file cabinet.  When you’re born the cabinet is empty but as you age you have more and more experiences and each one goes into the file cabinet.  As you age, the file cabinet collects more and more information and gets more and more full. Accessing the files in the cabinet becomes more difficult as more information is added.  

Another frequent question I’ve had over the years centers around people having more difficulty pulling names from the file cabinet.  I’m finding this myself with my dogs, sometimes calling them by names of past dogs I’ve had. The longer I live the more dogs I’ve had and the more names I have to sort through in the file cabinet which is my brain.   


When I was younger and had only a couple of dog names in my head to choose from things were easier!

This is simply the reality of life.  As we live, we have experiences that all go into our brain and the more data we have in there the more difficult it can be to access that data.   This is a normal part of aging.

If there are things you’ve done your whole life that suddenly seem difficult or impossible, then you might want to see a doctor and have your memory checked.  If there is a specific location you have driven to for many years for example and now you can’t find that location, this would be a sign that something may be off and would warrant a check-up with your doctor.


Getting a cognitive baseline established can make it easier for your doctor to determine later in life if you are developing dementia.  The Coalition of Wisconsin Aging and Health Groups recommends getting a cognitive baseline established with your physician at the age of 50 but it’s never too late to get a baseline established!  Then if you feel your memory is slipping you can go back to your doctor where he or she will re-test you and can compare your current test results to your previous test results. If there is no change your doctor will tell you that and if there are changes your doctor will know that as well.  This can be extremely helpful in that it creates your own personal baseline to test from rather than using general population statistics.

I hope you have found this helpful.  For further information please see our materials on maintaining brain health and the ten warning signs of dementia.  We will be updating our website regularly and have much more information on dementia coming soon so check back frequently!

Robert M. Gundermann, President and Executive Director

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