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“They must be going senile.” Many of us have heard some version of this phrase throughout our lives. It’s often used to imply that someone, usually an older adult, is losing his or her cognitive faculties.

But what does the word senile actually mean? And is it ever appropriate to use?

The short answer is, no. “Senile” and “senility” have often been used incorrectly to refer to someone with dementia, creating a negative and often hurtful connotation of the word. Today, “senile” is generally considered an insult and is not used except as part of archaic medical condition names.

The more accurate way to refer to natural changes of aging, especially those related to mental and intellectual functioning, is “cognitive changes.”

Today, active, healthy seniors are challenging many beliefs about aging such as the notion that a serious decline in mental state is a common or natural part of aging. While cognitive changes do occur as we age, they’re not the same as what’s seen in individuals with dementia.

What natural changes occur as we age? If the cognitive changes that occur during the natural aging process are not the same as dementia, what exactly is dementia, and what can we expect as we age? Read on to learn more.

What exactly happens to your cognitive functioning as you age?

SYMPTOMS OF Natural Aging

On a cognitive level, as you age, you may notice the following:

  • It takes more time to learn new things.
  • You may forget things from time to time.
  • You may find multitasking more difficult.
  • You may require a little extra time to process information or solve a problem.
  • You may forget a word here or there while in conversation.

The above items are all normal effects of aging on memory, thinking, or social skills. This is very different from conditions like dementia.

For example, maybe you forget to pay a monthly bill. Perhaps you lost track of time or were so busy with other things that you forgot it was due. This type of forgetfulness is a typical and can happen to people of all ages.

In contrast, someone with a condition like dementia may have continuing trouble remembering to pay bills or may forget the steps involved in bill paying. This type of forgetfulness can significantly affect a person’s lifestyle.

Other natural signs of aging

You may also notice some physical changes that occur naturally as you age. Some of these changes can include:

  • bones shrinking in size or becoming weaker
  • a decrease in flexibility, strength, or endurance
  • an increase in wrinkling of the skin or appearance of age spots
  • stiffening of your blood vessels and arteries
  • needing to urinate more often
  • difficulties with eyesight or hearing
  • a weakening of the immune system

Natural aging itself doesn’t require a diagnosis. However, as we age, we may become more susceptible to certain health conditions. Some examples include:

Your doctor can work with you to identify and treat conditions that develop as you age. This is why it’s vital to have regular health checkups as you get older and to see your doctor if you develop any health concerns.

Now that we’ve talked about the body’s natural process of aging, particularly as it concerns cognitive function, what exactly is dementia?

Dementia isn’t actually a specific disease, but rather a group of symptoms that affect things like thinking skills and memory. Dementia occurs when a decline in memory, thinking skills, or social skills becomes severe enough that a person’s day-to-day activities and functioning are affected.

Dementia is caused by damage to the cells in your brain. Many things can cause dementia, including:

  • Progressive dementia conditions. These types of dementias get worse over time and cannot be reversed. Examples of progressive dementias include Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
  • Reversible dementia conditions. These conditions can be reversed or improved with medical treatment. They can occur due to many factors, such as an infection, a reaction to a medication, or a nutritional deficiency.
  • Other conditions. Other conditions which can cause dementia symptoms include Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and traumatic brain injuries.

If you or a loved one is showing a decline in memory or other cognitive skills that significantly affects daily life, you should make an appointment with your doctor.

other symptoms of dementia

It’s important to remember that the symptoms of dementia don’t just involve memory loss. Other symptoms to look out for can include:

  • issues performing tasks that are complex or that involve planning or problem solving
  • problems communicating, which can include difficulties in following or making conversations
  • noticeable changes in a person’s personality or mood
  • periods of confusion or disorientation
  • decline of coordination or of motor function

If dementia is diagnosed in its early stages, it can sometimes be slowed and in some cases, even halted or improved (depending on its cause).

Although we can’t completely prevent the natural effects of aging, there’s plenty that you can do to keep your brain sharp as you age.

Give your brain a workout

Do activities that make you think, solve problems, and recall information. Activities like this may help to stimulate your brain and keep it in shape. Examples include things like doing crossword puzzles, doing arts and crafts, or learning a new skill.

Stay active

Not only is exercise good for your overall health, but physical activity can increase blood flow to your brain. Try to do some form of aerobic exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week.

Be social

Spending time with family and friends can help keep your brain stimulated and combat things like depression or stress. You may also consider volunteering with a local organization.

Eat a healthy diet

Try to focus your diet so that it’s rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Choose healthy protein sources such as nuts, fish, and chicken.

Address other health conditions

Some conditions can increase your risk of cognitive decline or dementia as you age. If you have a condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, be sure to work with your doctor to keep it under control.

Keep your head protected

Traumatic brain injuries can cause issues with cognition. Remember to always wear a helmet when performing activities such as biking or playing contact sports.

The word senile simply refers to something that’s “characteristic of old age.” However, it’s a word that’s often been incorrectly used to refer to someone who may have dementia, giving it a hurtful and negative connotation. For that reason, outside of a medical setting, do not use the word.

While we all undergo cognitive changes as we become older, they’re often not at the level of severity of dementia. Different from natural aging, dementia is a decline in memory, thinking, and other cognitive skills that significantly impacts an individual’s ability to function in their daily life.

While we can’t do anything to halt the aging process, we can definitely take steps to keep our brains and memories sharp as we age. Some examples include being both mentally and physically active, staying social, and addressing any existing health conditions.