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Frequency of 'senior moments' linked to Alzheimer's disease

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Researchers now say it is important to report frequent mental lapses that are often referred to as "senior moments" to your physician. Staring into space, illogical thinking, and daytime sleepiness that fluctuate could precede the onset of Alzheimer's disease warn scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"For many years, people have jokingly attributed mental lapses, or incidents when the train of thought temporarily seems to jump its tracks, as 'senior moments". It has never been clear as to whether these lapses could lead to the development of Alzheimer's disease says Dr. James Galvin, an associate professor of neurology and lead study author. "We demonstrate clearly, for the first time, that such episodes are more likely to occur in persons who are developing Alzheimer's disease."

Experiencing fluctuations in cognition doesn't necessarily mean you are headed toward Alzheimer's disease, but the research team found that individuals with frequent mental lapses were 4.6 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease with more severe symptoms compared to seniors with fewer mental fluctuations.

The findings are the result of a study conducted on 511 older adults with memory problems whose average age was 78. The study group received memory test. Family member were questioned about daytime sleepiness despite adequate sleep, staring into space for long periods of time and illogical thinking.

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Twelve percent of the group met criteria for frequent mental lapses and also 4.6 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Individuals with mental fluctuations performed worse on memory tests.

In the study, 216 participants were diagnosed with very mild or mild dementia. Twenty five experienced mental lapses. "We have some ideas about why the biology of dementia with Lewy bodies causes these mental lapses, but nothing comparable for Alzheimer's," Galvin says. It’s possible that some of the patients who were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in this study will go on to develop dementia with Lewy bodies, but at the time of the study, they weren't showing any of the Lewy body dementia's core features."

There is no exact test for Alzheimer's disease. The study author suggests more research to determine how frequent mental fluctuations can be used as a criterion for diagnosing who will develop Alzheimer's disease.

The current study links frequency of "senior moments" such as staring, daytime sleepiness, and disorganized thinking to the development of Alzheimer's disease. The findings suggest that frequent fluctuations in cognitive function should be incorporated in the diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

NEUROLOGY 2010;74:210-217