People with Early Alzheimer's Disease Can Still Be Taught to Recall Information

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People who have early stage Alzheimer's disease could be more capable of learning than previously thought, according to two new studies supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a part of the National Institutes of Health. The promising studies suggest that some people with early cognitive impairment can still be taught to recall important information and to better perform daily tasks.

The findings are reported in the July-August 2004 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Researchers in Florida found mildly impaired Alzheimer's patients who participated in 3-to-4 months of cognitive rehabilitation had a 170 percent improvement, on average, in their ability to recall faces and names and had a 71 percent improvement in their ability to provide proper change for a purchase. The participants also could respond to and process information more rapidly and were better oriented to time and place compared to a similar group of Alzheimer's patients who did not receive this targeted intervention. These improvements were still evident 3 months after the cognitive training ended.

This research is believed to be the first to combine several specific cognitive memory techniques into a single rehabilitation program for those who are mildly impaired with Alzheimer's.

These findings follow a recent study by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis who found that older people with early-stage Alzheimer's retained functioning levels of implicit memory similar to young adults and older adults who did not have Alzheimer's. Implicit memory is relatively unconscious and automatic: Information from the past "pops into mind" without a deliberate effort to remember. This unconscious, implicit memory is important for common skills and activities, such as speaking a language or riding a bicycle. In many cases, people implicitly remember how to perform these activities, without being able to deliberately remember when or where they learned them.

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"Taken together, these studies introduce the exciting notion that older people who are in the early stages of Alzheimer's can be taught techniques to help stay engaged in everyday life," Neil Buckholtz, Ph.D., head of the Dementias of Aging Branch at the NIA said. "These findings show it is possible to pinpoint what memory capabilities are preserved in early Alzheimer's disease and suggest ways to target those memory functions and make the most of them."

Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible disorder of the brain, robbing those who have it of memory, and eventually, overall mental and physical function, leading to death. It is the most common cause of dementia among people over age 65, affecting an estimated 4.5 million Americans.

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The source of this article is the US Department of Health and Human Services. For more information about this study, please go to: http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/jul2004/nia-02.htm

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