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Researchers Map Out Early Steps to Alzheimer's

After memory loss, decision and attention next affected, they say

MONDAY, July 17, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Memory failure is usually the very earliest sign of a pre-Alzheimer's condition, and a new study finds that "executive functions" -- concentration, decision-making and problem-solving -- may be the next neurological systems affected.

"If someone with mild cognitive impairment starts having trouble staying on task, concentrating, multitasking, making decisions or paying attention to several things at once, that would mean they are progressing toward dementia," Mayo Clinic neurologist and senior study investigator Dr. Ron Petersen said in a prepared statement.

The findings were presented Monday at the International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders, in Madrid, Spain.

The study included 354 people with mild cognitive impairment -- a precursor to Alzheimer's -- who were followed for an average of 3.1 years. Over the course of the study, the patients were regularly assessed for impairment in executive function, and in language and visuospatial abilities.

In the early stages of mild cognitive impairment, the patients' attention capacity began to deteriorate. Executive function continued to decline steadily during the time that the patients were followed, the study said.

"A decline in executive function will cause people to become more impaired in their daily activities, as it is pretty important in daily function," Petersen said.

Understanding the typical progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease is helpful for patients, their families, and doctors, he added.

"Knowing what area of cognitive function is likely to become impaired after memory helps us as we try to keep our eyes out for people when they are worsening," Petersen noted.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about Alzheimer's disease.

SOURCE: Mayo Clinic, news release, July 17, 2006
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