Don't Chalk Forgetfulness Up to Normal Aging
"Everybody loses their keys sometime or forgets where they put something, no matter what age," study author Martha Storandt, PhD, tells WebMD. "But the message here is that if older people experience troubling memory loss or a change in [thought] function, it should be checked out. Early diagnosis is becoming more important, because interventions are on the horizon that may slow the process of the disease."
Alzheimer's cases could skyrocket to 14 million within the next 30-40 years, as baby boomers reach old age. Though there is currently no intervention proven to either prevent the disease or slow its progression, research efforts appear promising. At the forefront of that research are vaccines and drugs designed to prevent or reduce plaque buildup in the brain caused by beta amyloid protein. It is believed that the injury to nerve cells caused by this plaque buildup is responsible for the dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease.
The National Institute on Aging is also conducting a nationwide Alzheimer's prevention study targeting patients with mild cognitive impairment. Researchers hope to determine whether vitamin E or donepezil, a drug currently marketed for patients with Alzheimer's, can slow or reverse memory loss.
"I think that within the decade there will be drugs that delay the progression of Alzheimer's and maybe even prevent the disease," says Buckholtz. "We should also have more sophisticated ways of diagnosing it. People are working to develop a blood test, and that will make a huge difference."
Buckholtz and Storandt agree that physicians need to take the concerns of their older patients more seriously, and not chalk memory problems up to normal aging.
"It is ageist to think that people naturally have declines [in thought processes] as they get older," Storandt tells WebMD. "We have evidence that people can do extremely well ... even into their 90s. But at this point, many primary care physicians still dismiss concerns about memory loss, and we are saying that maybe they shouldn't."