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Knowing That Your Memory Fails Is an Omen

UCLA research finds link between memory complaints and future problems

FRIDAY, Sept. 27, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Joking about "senior moment" memory problems is common, even among people who aren't yet middle-aged.

But very frequent complaints about memory failure may be an omen, new research from UCLA suggests.

The higher the awareness of memory loss, the higher the risk of future memory decline, says Dr. Gary Small, the director of the UCLA Center on Aging, who will present his new research this weekend in Chicago at the First Annual Dementia Congress.

"To some extent, subjective awareness of memory changes predicts future decline in brain function in the memory centers," Small says.

For example, in a recent research study, he evaluated 39 people between the ages of 50 and 82, all of whom had mild memory complaints. Some were carriers of the APOE-4 gene, a susceptibility gene for Alzheimer's, and some were not. He gave all of them a standardized memory assessment test and asked them to rate their memory performance. Each person underwent positron emission tomography (PET) scans of the brain on entering the study and then again two years later.

Small found that the perceived degree of memory loss correlated with a decline in metabolism in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning and recall, regardless of whether the APOE-4 gene was present. On average, the metabolism in that area declined about four percent during the two years.

"Awareness predicts the biological changes," Small says. "This is what we predicted would happen."

"These data are not surprising," Small adds. "Brain aging occurs very early in life, even in young people. Some of these subjective memory changes we notice actually have some biological meaning."

People who experience such memory loss often fear they are getting Alzheimer's disease, which can begin with mild memory problems and progress to more serious ones. About four million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association, a sponsor of the Dementia Congress along with the UCLA Center on Aging.

But recent research suggests that a large number of people who suffer from milder forms of cognitive problems might be able to protect the brain from further decline by paying attention to lifestyle and environmental factors that play a role in progression of the disease.

"There is a lot we can do about it," Small says of cognitive decline. "We can keep our brain young and healthy, improve our memory performance and even stave off future decline."

Genetics accounts for about one third of cognitive problems, Small says, while we have some control over the other two-thirds. "Be proactive in protecting your brain," Small tells people. To do that, he recommends mental activity, "what I call mental aerobics." Exercising the mind with anything fun and stimulating works, he adds.

Staying in good physical shape is important, he says, as is eating a "brain-healthy" diet. He recommends, among other measures, reducing saturated fats and focusing on "omega 3" or good fats, found in such foods as canola oil, salmon and trout.

"And let's see, what was the last one?" Small quips. "Oh yes, stress reduction. If you can cover those four areas, you can keep your brain healthy." In his new book, The Memory Bible, Small talks about healthy brain aging and how to improve memory.

Another expert in the field says Small's study will contribute to the body of information about Alzheimer's disease.

"This important finding suggests that self-awareness of memory loss may be an important predictor of future declines in thinking and may possibly be helpful in predicting future dementia," says Dr. Michael Weiner, director of the magnetic resonance unit at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco.

"When treatments which are effective for Alzheimer's become available (some day, hopefully not too many years away), then the prediction of Alzheimer's become very important, especially if treatment which prevents the onset becomes available," he adds.

What To Do

For warning signs of Alzheimer's, visit the Alzheimer's Association, which also offers information on myths about the disease.

SOURCES: Gary Small, M.D., Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging, UCLA, and director, UCLA Center on Aging, Los Angeles; Michael Weiner, M.D., director, magnetic resonance unit, VA Medical Center, San Francisco, and professor of medicine, radiology, psychiatry and neurology at UCSF, San Francisco; Sept. 28, 2002, presentation, First Annual Dementia Congress, Chicago
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