WEDNESDAY, Sept. 24, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Healthy elderly people who begin reporting memory lapses are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with dementia roughly a decade later, new research suggests.
Evaluating more than 500 seniors, scientists found that those with memory complaints were almost three times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment (memory and thinking problems) -- a potential precursor to Alzheimer's disease -- within nine years. Additionally, 80 percent had full-blown dementia within a dozen years.
"I would say if you're an elderly person and you're noticing serious changes in your memory, you should take it seriously, but it's certainly not a cause for immediate alarm," said study author Richard Kryscio, associate director of University of Kentucky's Sanders-Brown Center on Aging.
"If you're a middle-aged person, I would sort of ignore this," he added. "The average age of the people we started [the study] with was 73... and nothing happened until they were in their 80s, so there's plenty of time."
The study is published in the Sept. 24 online edition of the journal Neurology.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. It causes profound memory loss that is also characterized by impairments in language, focus, judgment and visual perception, according to the Alzheimer's Association. About 5.2 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, which is progressive, incurable and eventually leads to death.
The study participants were asked annually about any noticeable changes in their memory, and took memory and thinking tests, for an average of 10 years. After death, 243 participants' brains were examined for evidence of Alzheimer's disease during autopsies.
Among other results, nearly 56 percent of participants reported memory lapses overall, at an average age of 82. People carrying a gene increasing the risk of Alzheimer's had double the odds of experiencing brain impairment. Smokers complaining of memory problems took less time to transition to mild cognitive impairment, the findings showed.
Kryscio said he was mildly surprised to see how many years it took for dementia to set in among those experiencing earlier memory lapses. This extended period potentially offers time to prevent further problems from developing, he noted, but no proven dementia interventions currently exist.
Dr. Anton Porsteinsson, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Care, Research and Education Program at University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York, called the study "well thought-out." He said its focus mirrors that of much other research in the field.
Despite the lack of proven dementia interventions, Porsteinsson said, certain lifestyle changes can help memory, including quality sleep, exercise, a healthy diet and brain-stimulating activities.
"Those are things that are reasonable to initiate, especially in those getting worried or noticing some changes in their memory," he said.
"The challenge here, in terms of interventions, is that there is no single thing that offers a solution," Porsteinsson added. "But for now, for people who do feel their memory is changing in a consistent or significant way, it makes sense for them to at least bring this up with their health care provider and consider whether some changes in lifestyle can contribute to healthy cognitive aging."
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on dementia.