As our loved ones get older, various health risks increase. These may include a higher risk of falling, heart disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, or many other complications.
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are two common ways to describe a person’s cognitive decline and memory loss. But many of us are also familiar with the terms senile, senility, or even senile degeneration of the brain if you’re speaking more technically.
However common, the term senile is now rather controversial and considered outdated by many healthcare professionals.
And the truth is, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and senility shouldn’t always be used interchangeably—outdated or not—but they too often are.
Still, knowing the meaning of common terminology around aging and cognitive decline can help you understand your loved one’s challenges and advocate for them. It can also help you use the most current, respectful, and accurate words to describe someone’s condition.
What is Senility (also known as Senile Degeneration of the Brain)?
Previously, people assumed memory loss and cognitive decline were simply a natural part of aging. Therefore, senility is an older way to describe an aging person’s decline in physical, cognitive, and mental health as the word senile actually is simply defined as a characteristic that is defined by old age. A person experiencing senility may have:
- Issues with judgment
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Memory loss
- Vision or hearing loss
- Increased weakness, such as the inability to lift things they once could
- Stiff joints
- Changes in posture
Senile can also be used as a descriptor for medical conditions, such as “senile arthritis” or “senile osteoporosis.” In these cases, “senile” refers to the advanced age at which a person developed the condition and has nothing to do with cognitive decline.
When it comes to cognitive decline, a person’s condition used to commonly be described as “senile dementia” or “senile Alzheimer’s.” Again, in these descriptions, the word senile was used as a qualifier for the condition based on the older age of the person who experienced that cognitive decline.
Senile dementia of Alzheimer’s Type (SDAT) is a medical diagnosis that healthcare providers once used to describe dementia triggers that were likely a result of Alzheimer’s. To receive the diagnosis, the onset of symptoms had to have occurred after a person turned 65—hence, senile.
As we are apt to do, over the years, people began to chop these descriptors into smaller, easier to say words. Understandably, nobody wants to say the phrase senile degeneration of the brain over and over again, and thus, the word senile entered the common vernacular to refer to an older adult who suffered from any sort of cognitive decline.
Nowadays, people typically use the term “late-onset” to describe the age of a person’s dementia. But SDAT is still included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V (DSM-V). It’s coded as a diagnosis for major or minor neuro-cognitive disorders resulting from Alzheimer’s.
The hallmark plaques that develop on the brain during Alzheimer’s may be referred to as “senile plaques.”
Differences Between Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Senility
As we’ve stated, the term “senility” has fallen out of favor with medical professionals for a couple of reasons. First, it’s often used as a slur.
Think about it. Saying, “She’s just a senile old lady,” to refer to a woman experiencing memory loss and having trouble regulating her emotions is horribly disrespectful. She deserves empathy and assistance.
Dementia, on the other hand is an appropriate term to use and serves as an umbrella term to describe brain conditions that trigger:
- Progressive memory loss
- Progressive decline in a person’s ability to think
- Reduced abilities to function and care for themselves
- Decline in ability to communicate verbally
- Personality changes
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for about 70 to 80 percent of all cases. Others forms of dementia include:
- Vascular dementia: This is a type of dementia caused by a restriction of blood flow to the brain, such as from a stroke.
- Parkinson’s dementia: This type of dementia occurs in the later stages of Parkinson’s disease, which is marked by uncontrollable movements like shaking and balance difficulties.
- Huntington’s disease: This disease is genetic and leads to changes in the central brain, which affects thinking abilities and mood.
- HIV-associated dementia: Patients develop this dementia when HIV spreads to the brain and triggers a decline in memory and thinking skills.
Dementia can occur in stages, usually classified as:
- Early stage: Daily functioning starts to become affected when an individual is diagnosed with early-stage dementia. They may begin to struggle with verbal communication, such as repeating things or not being able to figure out the right word to say. Routine tasks, such as remembering to pay bills or go to the grocery store, become more challenging.
- Middle stage: A person has more difficulty functioning at home and outside of it. Short-term memory has severely declined. Social judgment and problem-solving are also impaired.
- Late stage: A person requires much more intense care. They will need assistance with all tasks, from eating to bathing.
Senile and senility were once used to describe the age at which Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia developed. It’s no longer considered the most accurate or respectful way to describe these challenges.
Other terms, such as “late onset” dementia, or the specific form or stage of dementia an individual has, are better words than senile.
Support Is Available
Caring for an individual with dementia can be challenging. You may feel like you are spending so much time helping them complete day-to-day tasks that you’ve lost yourself. Support and resources are available, including:
- Alzheimer’s Association: The website has plenty of information on safety, caregiver mental health, and what to expect as the disease progresses.
- Local hospitals: They may host local support groups or be able to refer you to a therapist for yourself.
- Doctors: Doctors may also know of support groups or therapists who specialize in helping people cope with caregiving responsibilities for aging loved ones.
- WayWiser: Setting your family up on a caregiving app such as WayWiser will greatly help you communicate on a regular basis and coordinate care in a more efficient manner.
Senile, senility, or even senile degeneration of the brain are outdated terms not because they are inherently rude, but because they have adapted to have relatively negative connotations over the years.
Our knowledge of memory loss has also expanded in the last several decades. We now know memory loss and other symptoms of cognitive decline are not just a natural part of aging but can be caused by dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common — but not only — form. Dementia can also refer to vascular, HIV-associated dementia, and Parkinson’s dementia, among others.
“Late-onset” is a better way to describe dementia that develops after the age of 65, which is what people used to refer to as Senile Dementia of Alzheimer’s Type or senile degeneration of the brain.
Dementia commonly progresses in stages — a person does not suddenly become “senile” when they reach late-stage dementia. But they do require more assistance, and it can be taxing on caregivers. If you are that caregiver, help is available. Reach out to resources, like a local chapter of Alzheimer’s Association or your loved one’s healthcare team, for help.