Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

50+: Live Better, Longer

Font Size

Why Older People Are Forgetful

Brain Tissue Changes May Play a Role in Forgetfulness, Researchers Say
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 15, 2010 -- Abnormal brain tissue changes called brain lesions may be more at fault than previously thought in forgetfulness in older people, new research shows.

Scientists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago say the same brain lesions that are associated with dementia in old age may be responsible for mild memory loss.

The researchers studied 350 Catholic nuns, priests, and brothers who were given memory tests annually for up to 13 years, and after death, had their brains examined for lesions.

The study found that memory decline tended to be gradual before speeding up in the last four or five years of life.

Tangles and Lewy Bodies

Researchers say they found that strokes as well as protein accumulations called tangles and Lewy bodies seemed to be related to memory loss in older people.

They report that minimal gradual memory declines were seen in the absence of tangles, while Lewy bodies and strokes doubled the rate of gradual memory loss.

Tangles and Lewy bodies were found to be associated with rapid memory decline but explained only about a third of the memory loss.

“It appears these brain lesions have a much greater impact on memory function in old age than we previously thought,” study author Robert S. Wilson, PhD, of the Rush University Medical Center, says in a news release. “Our results challenge the concept of normal memory aging and hint at the possibility that these lesions play a role in virtually all late-life memory loss.”

The Study

The subjects, for up to 13 years, had memory tests that involved word recall, naming, verbal, number, and reading assignments, and all had agreed to autopsies so that their brains could be studied.

“Understanding how and when these brain lesions affect memory as we age will likely be critical to efforts to develop treatments that delay memory loss in old age,” Wilson says.

Lesions Cause Memory Loss

The researchers conclude that mild age-related declines in cognitive function are mainly the result of the lesions that traditionally are associated with dementia, but there are other causes as well.

They say their findings indicate that brain lesions associated with dementia are mainly responsible for gradual age-related cognitive decline that precedes dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and related disorders.

The lesions, they write, apparently “have a much greater impact on late-life cognitive functioning than previously recognized.”

Better Understanding of Brain Aging Could Point to Treatments

The authors say that better understanding of individual differences of memory loss and early changes in the buildup of proteins may offer hope and new strategies for delaying the start of dementia’s symptoms.

The study is published in the Sept.15, 2010 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Today on WebMD

blueberries
Eating for a longer, healthier life.
romantic couple
Dr. Ruth’s bedroom tips for long-term couples.
 
womans finger tied with string
Learn how we remember, and why we forget.
man reviewing building plans
Do you know how to stay healthy as you age?
 
fast healthy snack ideas
Article
how healthy is your mouth
Tool
 
dog on couch
Tool
doctor holding syringe
Slideshow
 
champagne toast
Slideshow
Two women wearing white leotards back to back
Quiz
 
Man feeding woman
Slideshow
two senior women laughing
Article