The Cognitive Changes in Older Adults You Should Watch For

Minor cognitive changes in older adults are often expected, but there are some that have a deeper meaning for a senior’s health and well-being. Often it is up to the family to watch for cognitive changes in older adults so they can get treatment, live safely, and stay as independent as possible. As a loved one ages it is key to know what cognitive changes in older adults to look for and what they may mean. 

Forgetfulness – what’s normal? 

Forgetting is one of the first things people notice about themselves and others as they age and it can be disconcerting. Normal forgetfulness, however, is easily separated from more severe memory conditions, according to the National Institute on Aging article, “Forgetfulness: Normal or Not?” which defines normal forgetfulness as memory lapses such as accidently missing a monthly payment, losing things once in a while and making an occasional poor decision. On the other hand, signs of serious cognitive changes in older adults include, repeatedly using poor judgment, forgetting to pay monthly bills, losing things often, and losing track of the date or year. When these signs appear, it’s a good idea to see a physician to determine what is going on. 

Attention problems  

When you notice it is hard for a senior to pay attention or to focus on more than one thing at a time, it may be a sign of cognitive changes in older adults. According to the article, “Why people become more prone to distraction with age,” a study by the University of Southern California found the ability to pay attention, especially during stressful or emotional times, can be impacted by age in the “locus coeruleus” of the brain, the same area where Alzheimer’s and dementia are thought to originate. While a decreased attention span and inability to concentrate can be considered a normal part of aging, they are both common symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as well. 

Problems communicating 

Occasionally losing your train of thought is normal but losing the ability to stay engaged in a conversation or to express thoughts or feelings correctly may be a sign of cognitive changes in older adults that should be noted. When a senior cannot find the right word repeatedly, uses the wrong word or doesn’t seem to understand what is being said, there may be reasons other than normal aging. While they may have trouble hearing especially when there is background noise or take medications that cause fatigue or confusion, trouble communicating can also be a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  Learn what to watch for and how to help in the NIA article, “Alzheimer’s Caregiving: Changes in Communication Skills.” 

Download our FREE guide, “Staying Home vs. Senior Living – Should you stay or should you go?”


Disorientation in familiar places 

Learning that a senior loved one lost their way home from the grocery store or seeing them become disoriented in a familiar place is a red flag that something is amiss. Disorientation that seems to become more pronounced later in the day, which is known as “sundowning,” is another sign of cognitive changes in older adults that require immediate attention. Although there can be many reasons for disorientation such as delirium (caused by medications, infections or trauma like a concussion), amnesia, medications, blood sugar problems, and dehydration, dementia is also on the list. Learn more about the causes and treatments in the article, “What Causes Disorientation.”  

Abnormal aggression 

When a senior begins showing unprovoked and uncharacteristic aggressive behavior or unexplained mood swings, it’s time to look for underlying causes. Not to be confused with occasional anger for a specific reason, repeated aggressive behavior like combativeness, speaking too loud and forcefully, restlessness, pacing, and sleep problems, can be a sign of cognitive changes in older adults. According to the article, “Senior aggression: Why it happens and what you can do,” there are two primary reasons and the most common is a urinary tract infection which can often be easily treated with antibiotics. But the second reason is a neurologic problem such as a stroke or a neurodegenerative disease such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.   

Withdrawal from social activities 

It may not be too noticeable at first, but when a senior repeatedly refuses invitations or shows no desire to take part in social activities, it can be attributed to mobility challenges, the inability to hear or see well, or they may not want to be exposed to COVID-19 or the flu. But social isolation is also a sign of the cognitive changes in older adults associated with mental decline. To better understand what’s behind this behavior, check out the AARP article, “The Danger of Social Isolation.” 

To learn if life can be better at Thrive, download our free guide, “Staying Home vs. Senior Living – Should you stay or should you go?” to learn more about what senior living has to offer, and contact us to learn more about life at Thrive! 

download your stay or go guide