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Health Information Under the Microscope: Memory Loss Not Part of Normal Aging

Most people, as they grow older, start to experience more of those mild memory lapses that are often called "senior moments" —when you're standing in front of the ATM and can't, for the life of you, remember your PIN, or when you can't recall the name of a movie you saw just a few days ago.

But according to a new study by researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, simply getting older is not the cause of the mild memory lapses normally attributed to old age. The study, published in the journal Neurology, found that even the very early mild changes in memory that are common in old age are caused by the same brain lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias.

"These changes are actually the first signs of progressive dementia — in particular Alzheimer's disease," says Robert S. Wilson, PhD, neuropsychologist at Rush University Medical Center and lead study author. "The structural and functional changes in the brain related to Alzheimer's disease and other dementias have a much greater impact on memory function in old age than we previously recognized."

Lesions Tied to Early Symptoms
The study involved more than 350 nuns, priests and brothers who participated in Rush’s Religious Orders Study. Participants completed up to 13 years of annual cognitive testing, and after their deaths their brains were examined for the lesions associated with dementia.

Researchers looked at the rate of change in the participants' brain function over time. The last four to five years of life showed a very rapid decline, while the preceding years showed a much more gradual decline that would typically be described as normal aging. But researchers were surprised to find that the presence of lesions strongly predicted these mild changes in cognitive function; conversely, almost no gradual decline was seen in the absence of lesions.

"What this reveals is that Alzheimer's disease and related dementias are the root cause of virtually all loss of cognition and memory in old age," says Wilson. "Understanding that the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease often look like normal aging will become critical once doctors are able to develop treatments that can slow the progression of the disease, when it will be important to diagnose people as early as possible."

More Information at Your Fingertips:
  • The Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center (RADC) is one of 29 Alzheimer's disease research centers across the country designated and funded by the National Institute on Aging. The center is dedicated to reducing disability due to Alzheimer's disease and other age-related conditions through research on the treatment and prevention of disease for this and future generations. Since 1985, the RADC has provided services to more than 5,000 Alzheimer's patients and their families through its outpatient clinic.
  • Are you interested in using the Internet for finding answers to medical questions or for creating your personal health record? If so, join experts from Rush to learn how at "Your Health … Online," a free event sponsored by Rush Generations, on Wednesday, Dec. 1, from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Because space is limited, registration is required. To register, call (888) 352-RUSH (7874) or register online.
  • Looking for a doctor? Call toll free: 888 352-RUSH (888 352-7874)
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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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Under the Microscope: Memory Loss Not Part of Normal Aging

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