Most people tend to associate memory loss with Alzheimer’s disease. But new research suggests the first signs of dementia may not, in fact, involve memory lapses at all, but problems with other day-to-day tasks — such as calculating finances, keeping appointments, and driving well.
The findings, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease
, suggest mild cognitive declines that may signal the early stages of Alzheimer’s are likely to result in a drop off in daily functioning related to changes in certain regions of the brain that control higher functions.
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Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston analyzed medical records of 104 clinically normal elderly participants, 203 participants with mild cognitive impairment, and 95 participants with mild dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. The participants had a baseline brain scan to determine brain activity and underwent clinical assessments every six to 12 months for up to three years. The participants’ family members or friends also completed questionnaires about the seniors’ daily living activities.
The researchers found that decreased activity in frontal areas of the brain, which are responsible for cognitive processing and decision making, and back areas of the brain (linked to memory), were associated with greater impairment of day-to-day activities over time.
“Impairment in activities of daily living is a major source of burden for Alzheimer’s disease patients and caregivers alike,” said Gad Marshall, M.D., an assistant professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. “Therefore, detecting these important deficits early on prior to the dementia stage, along with a better understanding of how they relate to changes in the brain, can lead to more effective design of clinical trials that focus on vital patient-centered outcomes.
“This in turn will ultimately lead to better treatments prescribed to patients at the early stages of Alzheimer's disease before they are robbed of their faculties and autonomy.”
According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as five million Americans age 65 and have dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. As the rapid growth of the aging population continues, the number of those developing the disease is expected to increase significantly, with the number of people with dementia due to Alzheimer's disease doubling for every five years beyond age 65.
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