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Memory Complaints May Precede Alzheimer’s By Decades

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Do you feel you have more problems with memory than most? You may be at risk for Alzheimer’s.

Older women who worried they were forgetting things were at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease many years later, new research found. The findings add to a growing body of research showing that Alzheimer’s is a decades-long process and underscore the need for treatments that may prevent the disease long before damage to the brain becomes extensive.

“These memory complaints may be a very early symptom of a gradual disease process such as Alzheimer’s disease,” said study author Allison Kaup, of the San Francisco VA Medical Center and University of California San Francisco. “Our study followed women for longer than most other studies, following these women over the course of nearly 20 years.”

The memory complaints were enough to be bothersome to the women, but not significant enough to show up on a standard memory test, Dr. Kaup said.

The study looked at 1,107 women who were 65 and older. All were free of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia at the start of the study. At the end of the study, they were given memory and thinking tests to look for signs of Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, a form of memory loss that often precedes Alzheimer’s.

At the start of the study, and periodically over the next 18 years, all the women were asked the same yes-or-no question: “Do you feel you have more problems with memory than most?”

Those who answered “Yes” at the start of the study were 70 percent more likely to have developed Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment than those who did not feel they had memory problems.

The likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s increased the more time that passed. Women who had memory complaints 10 years before the end of the study were 90 percent more likely to develop a diagnosis than those with no memory complaints at 10 years prior. Women who had memory complaints four years before the end of the study were three times more likely to develop a diagnosis than women with no memory complaints four years prior.

The researchers controlled for factors like depression and medical illnesses, which can lead to memory problems, and still the association held.

“Our findings provide further evidence that memory complaints in aging deserve close attention as a possible early warning sign of future thinking and memory problems,” said Dr. Kaup.

The study looked only at women, but other research has shown that memory complaints may precede Alzheimer’s by many years in both women and men.

One study, for instance, found that older men and women who had memory and thinking complaints were more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment; on average, they developed it about nine years later. Other research has documented changes in the brain consistent with Alzheimer’s, including brain shrinkage and increased deposits of the toxic protein beta-amyloid, many years before the disease is diagnosed.

The authors note that studies designed to test dementia prevention strategies might target older women who are worried about their memories as a way to intervene at an early stage in the Alzheimer’s disease process. Treatments and prevention strategies may be most effective at these early stages, before brain cells critical for memory and thinking are destroyed, experts believe.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Allison R. Kaup PhD, Jasmine Netriksimmons, PhD, Erin S. LeBlanc, MD, Kristine Yaffe, MD: “Memory Complaints and Risk of Cognitive Impairment After Nearly 2 Decades Among Older Women.” Neurology, Vol. 85, pages 1-7, November 2015.

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