As we age, the body changes in many ways. Some things we think of as normal signs of aging, such as the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles on our faces, or knee or hip joints that ache in the morning. The brain also ages, but it is important to understand the difference between normal and worrisome brain aging.

Is it normal aging or Alzheimer’s disease?

With age, the brain naturally shrinks over time, and there is less communication between the brain’s nerve cells, known as neurons. These changes result in some common signs of aging, including:

  • diminished memory, such as not recalling details of an event from a year ago or the name of an acquaintance
  • forgetfulness, such as where you left your keys or why you entered a room
  • occasionally having difficulty finding words

However, there are other signs that may indicate something beyond normal aging. Alzheimer's disease is a progressive condition that affects an estimated 26,000 Rhode Islanders each year, and 500,000 people nationwide. It belongs to a group of conditions known as "neurodegenerative disorders," which means they cause parts of the brain to age much quicker than they normally would.

The earliest symptoms of Alzheimer's disease often start around age 65. Occasional short-term memory loss progresses over the course of a few years to the point of forgetting conversations within minutes. Other potential signs of Alzheimer’s disease may include:

  • frequently struggling to find words
  • becoming lost while in places that are usually very familiar to you
  • requiring assistance with some routine activities of daily living, such as keeping track of your medications

Eventually, Alzheimer's disease advances to the point where a person develops dementia, the complete inability to function independently in everyday life due to further decline in memory and other brain functions. Patients with Alzheimer’s dementia eventually progress to the point where they can no longer even recognize their loved ones.

Research is vital

People are now living longer lives than ever before, and a growing number of people are becoming affected by Alzheimer’s disease. We know the abnormally rapid brain aging in Alzheimer's disease is in part due to the presence of toxic substances in the brain, such as amyloid, tau, glutamate, and others. Despite many recent advances, however, much work still remains to fully understand the cause and most effective prevention strategies for Alzheimer’s disease.

At the Rhode Island Hospital's Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders Center (ADMDC), we work in collaboration with a large network of national and international research centers, whose focus is to develop methods of early detection and treatments aimed at slowing down the most disabling aspects of this disease. We also focus more broadly on healthy brain aging.  Part of that work involves volunteers who help us with our studies, aimed at identifying and monitoring the earliest signs of Alzheimer's disease in the clinic, before memory loss has a major impact on one's life.

If you or someone you know has memory problems, contact us at [email protected] or 1-844-5-MEMORY (1-844-563-6679) for information on participating in this important research. You can learn more about Alzheimer’s Disease and our work at the ADMDC on our website.

Jonathan Drake, MD

Dr. Jonathan Drake is associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital, and specializes in aging and dementia. His clinical and research interests are in the early detection and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.