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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Study: Memory Loss Boosts Risk of Death

Even Mild Memory Problems Increase Risk, Researchers Find

Memory Problems and Death Risk: Study Details continued...

The median survival time (half longer, half less) was 138 months for those who had no impairment. It was 106 for those with mild impairment. It was 63 months for those with moderate to severe impairment.

The study, like most, had some limitations. The men and women were only tested at the start. Memory and thinking problems were not tracked over time.

All patients were from Indianapolis. They tended to have low education and low socioeconomic status. For that reason, the findings may not apply to everyone.

However, Sachs says the findings are a reminder that cognitive impairment is important for doctors to evaluate. He says some doctors, as well as patients, dismiss problems with memory and thinking as just inevitable with age.

It needs as much attention as doctors typically pay to screening for heart disease and cancers, Sachs says.

Cognitive impairment could be linked to death risk in a number of ways, he says. Those with it may be at risk for other problems, such as falls. They may be less likely to follow instructions to take medicine for other chronic conditions. They may be less likely to follow instructions to eat a healthy diet, increasing their risk of health problems.

To minimize cognitive impairment with age, Sachs recommends physical exercise, mental engagement, and social contact.

Memory and Thinking Problems and Risk of Death

The new study is ''another piece of evidence that mild cognitive impairment is far from a benign condition," says Terry E. Goldberg, PhD, an investigator at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine.

In his own recent research, Goldberg has found that cognitive information is more accurate at predicting who will progress to Alzheimer's disease than are such changes as brain volume.

To reduce the risk of impairment, he says that physical activity has been shown to have good effects on brain chemicals that affect memory.

"There's some evidence that mental activity over the course of one's life span is certainly effective," he says. A healthy diet is also advised. Goldberg reports research grants from Pfizer and serving as a consultant for Merck.

The findings lend support to the idea that cognitive impairment is not something to be dismissed, says William H. Thies, PhD, chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer's Association. "This paper is really a very solid piece of research work that really is documenting that the more cognitive impairment you have, the sooner you are going to die," he tells WebMD. "We have to start taking dementia seriously and recognize it as a fatal disease."

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