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Memory Worries May Be Early Sign of Alzheimer's

Although studies didn't prove connection, expert says concerns are worth mentioning to a doctor

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, July 17 (HealthDay News) -- Older adults who notice new problems with balancing the checkbook or reading the newspaper may be at increased risk of dementia in the coming years, according to four new studies.

The research, being presented this week at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Boston, suggests that older adults' concerns about their memory could serve as an early warning sign of future dementia.

That may not sound surprising. But it has not been clear whether people's subjective perceptions of memory slips are a reliable predictor of more-severe problems down the road.

Older adults who complain of memory issues, but test "normal" on standard cognitive (thinking) tests, have often been dismissed as the "worried well," said Rebecca Amariglio, a neuropsychologist with Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston who led one of the new studies.

Her team found evidence that older adults' concerns may be more significant.

The study included 131 adults who were 73 years old, on average, and had normal scores on formal tests of memory and thinking. To get at the participants' subjective perceptions, the researchers gave them a separate, detailed questionnaire that asked them to rate any problems they had with everyday tasks, like remembering things they've just read or been told. It also asked them how well they thought their mental skills measured up compared with a decade ago.

Next, the researchers used PET scans to image participants' brains.

It turned out that people with bigger subjective concerns about their mental sharpness had a higher level of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain. Beta-amyloid buildup is considered a risk factor for Alzheimer's.

It's not known yet whether the study participants who were worried about their memories actually face a greater Alzheimer's risk, Amariglio said.

She also stressed that older adults need not be alarmed by the "senior moments" that crop up as you age -- like walking into a room and forgetting why you went there, or having trouble remembering an unfamiliar person's name.

An expert not involved in the study agreed.

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