WEDNESDAY, April 23, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Seniors with mild symptoms of mental decline may face a higher risk of dying earlier than those with no thinking or memory problems, new Mayo Clinic research suggests.
Folks with mild impairment of memory or thought had an 80 percent higher death rate during the six-year study, compared to people with their mental faculties intact, according to findings that are to be presented Wednesday at the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in Philadelphia.
The research also revealed that losing one's ability to think is much more dire than losing one's memory.
People with declining language, attention and decision-making abilities -- but no memory loss -- had more than twice the death rate during the study than people with no mental decline at all.
By comparison, people with only memory loss had just a 68 percent higher death rate during the study compared to people with no thinking or memory problems, according to the study.
Underlying chronic diseases likely are contributing to both mental decline and increased risk of death, said Dr. Marc Gordon, chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital, in Glen Oaks, N.Y.
Health problems such as cardiovascular disease can trigger diseases like vascular dementia, in which low blood flow to the brain causes a decline in a person's thinking abilities, said Gordon, who's also an Alzheimer's disease researcher at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y.
"I assume that there is an underlying disease process that is going to manifest earlier as brain dysfunction and later on lead to death," Gordon said. Such disease-driven forms of mental decline also tend to play havoc more with reasoning and thought than memory, he added.
Mild mental decline often serves as an early sign of Alzheimer's disease, but the study found no difference in the death rate between people who ended up developing dementia and those who did not.
That finding supports the idea of an underlying health problem, Gordon said.
"Perhaps there may be other things going on that affect the brain and that also affect mortality, whether or not you develop dementia," he said.
The study involved 2,154 people living in Olmsted County, Minn., between the ages of 70 and 89. Of those participants, 862 had memory or thinking problems and 1,292 had no problems with their mental abilities.
These seniors were followed for nearly six years. They took tests at the start of the study and every 15 months thereafter to assess their thought and memory abilities.
Over six years, 38 percent of the people with mild mental decline died, compared with 17 percent of the group without mental decline.
As people age, they suffer from many health problems that wear at both mind and body, said study author Dr. Maria Vassilaki, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
"We know we have risk factors for mild cognitive impairment like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and stroke that also could increase mortality," Vassilaki said.
While there are no approved medications for mental decline, people who tackle these chronic illnesses can improve both their health and their chances of staying sharp in old age. "We can treat the conditions that affect mental function as well," she said.
Eating a healthy diet, engaging in regular physical exercise, and participating in mentally stimulating and socially engaging activities all are valuable lifestyle strategies for warding off chronic illness, Vassilaki said.
The National Institute on Aging paid for the research.
Research presented at medical meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Visit the Mayo Clinic for more on mild cognitive impairment.