Memory can start to fade as early as age 45

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Memory can start to slip when we're in our 40's, finds new study.
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If you're middle-age or approaching and wondering where you put your socks, don't be surprised. A new study shows our memory can start to slip as early as age 45. Until now scientists believed changes in memory and cognition rarely happened before age 60 that could later lead to dementia.

In the European study that tracked 7,000 British civil servants for a decade, investigators used a battery of tests to measure mental function, finding subtle, yet real changes in memory, verbal skills and mental reasoning that happen between age 45 and 49.

The finding is important because it underscores the importance of following a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and avoiding foods that boost cholesterol and are high in fat throughout life.

Lead author Archana Singh-Manoux, Ph.D., research director at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), in Paris said, "The fact that cognition declines early implies that midlife levels of these factors -- health behaviors and cardiovascular risk factors and disease -- might be important for cognitive outcomes later in life.”

The memory changes seen as early as age 45 could indicate higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and further mental decline.

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Obesity is linked to brain changes that can cause memory decline, as is diabetes. Researchers have learned that restricting calories is one way to keep the brain young, in findings published December, 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

In August 2011, researchers from the American Academy of Neurology found brain shrinkage that can happen from smoking, diabetes and high blood pressure occurs in mid-life. The authors suggested following a healthy lifestyle in mid-life can keep the brain sharp decades later. But the new study shows changes in the brain happen even sooner than previously known.

In an accompanying editorial to the study, Francine Grodstein, Sc.D., an epidemiologist and associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston who was not involved in the study said, "There is a lot of evidence that [people] with cognitive decline are at highest risk of later developing dementia, so it is likely that preventing or delaying cognitive decline today will help reduce risk of dementia tomorrow.”

The study known, as Whitehall II, is ongoing. Researchers are planning on following the study participants, which included 5,198 men and 2,192 women between the ages of 45 and 70 who were tested three times over a 10-year period to find the early changes in memory and cognition. The goal is to find out if subtle changes in verbal skills, mathematical reasoning and short-term memory as early as age 45 heralds later dementia.

Sources:
BMJ 2012;344:d7622
"Timing of onset of cognitive decline: results from Whitehall II prospective cohort study"
Archana Singh-Manoux et al.
January 5, 2012

BMJ 2012;344:d7652
How early can cognitive decline be detected?
Fran Grodstein

Image credit: Morguefile

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