Dementia’s First Signs Appear Long Before Old Age, Study Finds
The most unwelcome sign of aging, cognitive decline, may begin as young as 45, researchers found.
Scores on memory, reasoning and fluency tests fell starting in the mid-to-late 40s in a study of more than 7,000 U.K. government workers, said researchers led by Archana Singh-Manoux at France’s Centre for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health in Villejuif, near Paris. The findings were published online today in the British Medical Journal.
The deterioration became more dramatic as people aged, the researchers found. Pinpointing when cognitive decline begins is important because treatment is more likely to work when memory and reason first start to wane, they said. Most dementia studies focus on people 65 and older and future research should look at younger groups, wrote Francine Grodstein, an associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in an editorial accompanying the study.
“This finding potentially has profound implications for prevention of dementia, and public health,” Grodstein said. “Efforts to prevent dementia may need to start in adults as young as 45.”
Scientists in the U.K., France and the U.S. followed 5,198 men and 2,192 women participating in the Whitehall II study, a health-research project so called because those recruited worked at government offices in and around Whitehall in London.
The early signs of dementia are very subtle and vague, and may not be immediately obvious. Early symptoms also vary a great deal. Usually, though, people first seem to notice that there is a problem with memory, particularly in remembering recent events.
Other common symptoms include:
Apathy and withdrawal
Loss of ability to do everyday tasks.
Sometimes people fail to recognise that these symptoms indicate that something is wrong. They may mistakenly assume that such behaviour is a normal part of the ageing process. Or symptoms may develop gradually and go unnoticed for a long time. Sometimes, people may refuse to act even when they know something is wrong.
All the office workers were between 45 and 70 when the cognitive study began. Over a decade, the participants were tested three times on memory, reasoning, vocabulary and fluency.
For men and women ages 45 to 49, reasoning declined 3.6 percent over a decade, the study found. Men ages 65 to 70 experienced a 9.6 percent drop, while women in that age group had a 7.4 percent decrease, the researchers said. Vocabulary was the only area where test scores didn’t fall, they said.
The findings may not apply to the general population, since Whitehall II participants are mostly men and mostly white-collar workers with fairly stable jobs, the researchers said. Further study is needed, they said.
Signs of Mild Memory or Thinking Changes
– Difficulty remembering appointments
– Difficulty recalling the names of friends, neighbors and family members
– Using the wrong word when talking
– Jumbling words: mixing up or missing letters in words when talking
– Not following the conversation of friends or coworkers
– Not understanding an explanation or story
– Difficulty recalling whether a task was just completed the day or week before
– Difficulty keeping up with all the steps to a task
– Difficulty planning and doing an activity such as a board meeting or family reunion
– New difficulty filling out complicated forms such as income tax forms
– Different behavior: restless, quick to get angry, constant hunger (especially for sweets), quiet or withdrawn, etc.
– Buying items and forgetting there is plenty at home
– Struggling with work or home tasks that used to be routine and easy
– Loss of interest in meeting with friends or doing activitie
“Life expectancy continues to increase, and understanding cognitive aging will be one of the challenges of this century,” the researchers wrote. “Better understanding of both adverse and healthy cognitive aging trajectories might help the identification of early risk factors,” which may include obesity and cardiovascular disease, they said.
The study was funded by the European Science Foundation, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the BUPA Foundation, the Academy of Finland, the U.K. Medical Research Council and the British Heart Foundation.
– Editors: Marthe Fourcade, Tom Lavell.