It’s both gratifying and reassuring when readers leave comments reporting that they, too, are making errors similar to the ones I describe in a post. If you are of a certain age, you worry about these things. It’s nice for all of us to know that there is a community out there that embraces us.
But I don’t want to mislead anyone. Just because I am making mistakes that I can write about doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not a problem…for me or for you. You see, I don’t know whether what I’m describing is normal aging, a mild neurocognitive disorder or early signs of dementia. I don’t want to scare you with this blog, but neither do I want to give you a false sense of security.
So now would be a good time to talk about what it takes to determine where one actually stands. In other words, to make a diagnosis.
A diagnosis is a traffic light on the journey to nowhere. Normal aging is green: full speed ahead. A mild neurocognitive disorder is yellow: proceed with caution. Dementia is red: stop and revise your travel plans.
The first criterion for earning a diagnosis is that the mistakes are disrupting your life in a meaningful way. If they are occasional and only mildly irritating, then it’s probably normal aging. If they are more frequent, have actual negative but minor consequences, and you have difficulty compensating for them, then it might be a mild neurocognitive disorder. If the errors are significant, disrupt your daily activities, place you in danger, or you are unaware of them, then they might reflect the onset of a dementia.
Unfortunately, the above paragraph isn’t really all that helpful. There are too many squishy, undefined adjectives like ‘meaningful,’ ‘mildly,’ and ‘significant.’ We need to drill down.
The second criterion is that the changes you are noticing in your thinking and behavior represent declines from your normal or prior levels of performance. I’ve never been good at remembering faces or last names, so not being able to do so now doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about my status today. It’s new problems that we’re looking for.
But satisfying these first two criteria alone won’t earn you a diagnosis. Your performance should also fall below what is considered average among your peers. ‘Peers’ are often defined as those of the same age, gender and educational background. ‘Average’ is defined as scoring between the 16th and 84th percentiles on standardized cognitive tests. If you score between the 2.5 and 16th percentiles, you will meet the criteria for a mild neurocognitive disorder. If you fall below that level, it is most likely indicative of a dementia.
Finally, this isn’t just about memory. There are 6 broad areas of brain functioning that need to be evaluated. Significant problems in any one of them are sufficient to earn the diagnosis of mild neurocognitive disorder. Significant problems with memory and in at least one other domain are required for a diagnosis of dementia:
- Complex attention
- Executive function
- Learning and memory
- Social cognition
I hope to discuss them all in future posts. Meanwhile, here’s a link where you can learn a little more about these categories: https://rb.gy/xdhwnu.
Bottom line: The only way to know where you stand is to be tested. I have not yet been evaluated, so I don’t know where I stand. I can have no sense of security.
Join me on the journey! Just enter your email address here to receive notice of new posts: