Here’s some good news: researchers at the University of Texas have found that common memory lapses and mild to moderate decline in mental acuity do not predict Alzheimer’s. Nor were these symptoms linked with dementia at the end of life. In fact, it seems that having a purposeful life protected study participants from getting dementia.
For the study, which began in 1994 and is still continuing, the research team assessed verbal fluency, perceptual speed, IQ and episodic, semantic and working memory up to 14 times before study participants died. Semantic memory is the kind of memory where you store information. Working memory is the ability to hold information at one time in order to learn. Episodic memory allows recollection of personal history. Separate scores were made for each measure.
The researchers found that when people get older, some do lose cognition, but that it didn’t happen to over 50% of the study participants. They speculated that one way of thinking about the declines of half the study participants is that perhaps two mechanisms in the brain — neurofibrillary tangles and Lewy bodies — can impair function when they damage a neuron.
On the other side, for those who experienced little to no mental decline, lifestyle factors such as an active social life, intellectual pursuits, moderate alcohol consumption, and even higher levels of education seemed to protect against Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The researchers say that these findings are not meant as a cautionary tale or something to worry about. Rather, these are more of a positive finding in that it offers the hope that people won’t have to go through the cognitive declines often simply attributed to the aging process.
Just because someone has blips or a momentary lapse of some kind, or something doesn’t always work perfectly, doesn’t mean that something serious like malfunctioning Lewy bodies, tangles or a stroke is going to happen. When you see a regular pattern or something is affecting your life, that’s when you might have an issue, and want to get it checked out.
The research team also suggested keeping an eye on diabetes and high blood pressure.
This positive message seems to be that certain types of mental functions are often well-preserved and can be a great resource at the end of life, such as semantic memory and the knowledge that comes from experience.