Elizabeth Cook: Memory problems? Forget about it

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 3, 2013

This is not welcome news: People who worry about lapses in memory may indeed be experiencing early signs of Alzheimer’s, recent studies suggest.
Researchers at Brigham and Womens’ Hospital and Massachusetts General in Boston did PET brain scans on 131 people, mean age 73.5 years, who expressed concerns about changes in their memory. The scientists found a significant relationship between this “self-reported congitive concern” and the buildup in the brain of beta-amyloid, a protein implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The relationship “is stronger in people with higher levels of education and occupational attainment, who may notice cognitive changes more readily,” a press release from the conference said.
After reading about these findings one evening last week, I woke up in the middle of the night with a new worry. Had I sent my brother his birthday card in the wrong month? Had his birthday been in June?
A trip to the kitchen to check the calendar brought relief. His birthday was in July, just as I’d remembered.
So was the birthday of my best friend from high school. I deliberately mailed her birthday card two weeks early because I was afraid I would forget.

Concerns change as life progresses. I didn’t expect to move from worrying about getting kids through college to thinking about beta-amyloid in the brain.
Age is relative in more ways than one. I’ve noticed subtle shifts in my parents’ capabilities during recent visits. One weekend, each of them asked me in a private moment if I didn’t notice a change in the other.
My grandparents died in their 60s and 70s, so Mom and Dad are forging somewhat new paths into the 80s, and I don’t think any of us knew what to expect. These years have been hostile territory — worn joints, fragile bones, shortness of breath and other conditions that conspire to cement a habit of inactivity. Dad’s long, nearly deadly bout with pneumonia a few years ago set both of them back.
As I said, age is relative. We all know people in their 80s and older who remain fit, both physically and mentally. Use it or lose it, the cliche goes.
But I also have known very smart, active people who were hit by Alzheimer’s — brilliant longtime Salisbury Post columnist Rose Post, for example. No amount of “using it” was able to turn back the disease’s relentless onslaught.

Now for some good news. A study published in the Lancet found Alzheimers and other dementia-related diseases on the decline in England and Wales, with their rates dropping by 25 percent over the past two decades.
The overall number of people with these brain-robbing diseases is mushrooming because of longevity and population growth; experts have predicted the number of people affected will double in the next three decades. But the study found the rate — the number of people per thousand who are hit by these diseases — to be going down.
The “silver tsunami” of baby boomers heading into retirement may have an advantage. While no generation can escape Alzheimer’s and dementia, the study suggests this huge generation may fare better than those who have come before.
“This study provides further evidence that a cohort effect exists in dementia prevalence,” the Lancet article says. “The latter born population has a lower risk of prevalent dementia than those born earlier in the past century.”
Baby Boomers might want to read that again — lower risk.
A study in Denmark came up with comparable results, and researchers say the same trend might be taking place in the United States.
Reports the Chicago Tribune:

“Tentative conclusion: That slide into dementia and Alzheimer’s with age may not be inevitable. New theory: Eating right, exercising and cutting out smoking is not only good for your heart and lungs … it may also help forestall dementia.”
Not inevitable.

Forestall dementia.
That is welcome news indeed. Let’s commit it to memory.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.