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50+: Live Better, Longer

Memory Worries May Be Early Sign of Alzheimer's

Although studies didn't prove connection, expert says concerns are worth mentioning to a doctor
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"We're not talking about those times you walk out of your house and realize you've forgotten your keys," said Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer's Association.

"We're talking about cases where you identify a change over time -- you've always been able to balance your checkbook with no problem, but now you're having difficulty," she explained.

Even those issues do not necessarily mean you are on a course to develop Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. But if you notice such changes, it is something to bring up to your doctor, Snyder said.

Three other studies presented at the meeting uncovered evidence that subjective memory concerns may serve as red flags:

  • In a study of nearly 3,900 U.S. women aged 70 and up, those with memory concerns were more likely to show declining scores on objective memory tests over the next six years. The link was most clear among women who carried the ApoE4 gene variant -- the strongest known genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's.
  • Another study followed 531 older adults who took annual cognitive tests for a decade. Before each test, they were asked if they'd noticed changes in their mental abilities in the past year. Those who said they had were twice as likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or dementia at some point during the study. On average, participants noticed changes six to nine years before their diagnosis.
  • German researchers found that of 2,230 elderly adults who were free of obvious impairment, those who thought their memories were getting worse showed a steeper decline in objective memory tests over the next eight years.

The findings all raise the possibility that evaluating memory complaints could help doctors spot older adults at increased risk of dementia. But Snyder said it's too soon to say for sure.

"We don't know yet how this all could be used as a potential tool," Snyder said.

Amariglio agreed. She said the questionnaire from her study is not ready for doctors to use in everyday practice. Instead, it might help researchers find candidates for ongoing clinical trials that are studying drugs or lifestyle measures to hopefully slow down Alzheimer's progression.

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