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What Does Normal Aging Look Like?

Adult children of elderly parents often have a hard time distinguishing between normal aging and a serious disorder like Alzheimerís disease. Dr. Hisam Goueli, of Northwest Hospitalís Geropsychiatric Center, is a specialist in psychiatric treatment of the elderly. He has found there are a number of common misconceptions about how the brain changes as people get older.

"In normal aging, itís expected that people will have slower reaction times and take longer to learn something new," he says. "However, they should still be able follow a conversation, ask reasonable questions, process information, make plans, and learn new skills and facts. They should also be able to engage in hobbies or pastimes that they enjoy and have regular social contact with others."

"Contrary to popular belief," he explains, "normal aging is not marked by forgetfulness or feelings of isolation. Instead, these may be the hallmarks of a cognitive disorder, such as Alzheimerís disease and dementia, or a mood disorder, such as depression."

According to Dr. Goueli, warning signs of a cognitive disorder include difficulty remembering common words, forgetting the steps in an everyday activity, and a reduction in recent memory. "If you find yourself having to repeat things to your elderly parent several times, it might not be due to hearing loss but a cognitive disorder," he says.

Symptoms of a mood disorder such as depression include fatigue, a decrease in socializing and loss of interest in favorite activities. Depression is often triggered in the elderly by increased dependence on others, loss of the ability to drive, chronic medical issues or the death of a friend or spouse.

"Adult children often suspect that their aging parent may have a disorder long before a doctor makes a diagnosis," Dr. Goueli observes. "The earlier a problem is identified, the better the chance it can be treated."

By the time a doctor makes a diagnosis of dementia, for example, the patient has typically progressed beyond mild impairment to moderate. If caught early enough, however, only half of elderly adults with mild cognitive impairment will develop dementia within five years. The ones who get worse often have a history of depression. Elderly adults who have untreated depression are 20 times more likely to develop dementia than those with no mood disorder.

"It is extremely important for older adults to remain socially engaged," says Dr. Goueli. "Retirement may not turn out the way they hoped, due to medical issues, a loss of independence or financial problems. But simply spending time with others who are aging normally is beneficial. When seniors feel like they are the only one suffering with the burden of getting older, it may be hard for them to feel a sense of hope about the future."

At the same time, adults who are part of the "sandwich generation" responsible for taking care of both their parents and their own children typically feel as if they are being pulled in two different directions. Caregivers of parents with cognitive disorders are four times more likely to develop depression, compared with the general population. Joining a support group and sharing coping strategies can provide a much-needed emotional outlet, and may ultimately improve the aging process for elderly parents.

Northwest Hospitalís Geropsychiatric Center has been providing the most comprehensive psychiatric care for seniors in Washington since 1993. Treatment includes both inpatient and intensive outpatient programs.

For more information, about the Northwest Hospital Geropsychiatric Centerís services, call 206.368.1747 or visit nwhospital.org/gero.

 
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