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Early memory problems in cognitively healthy people linked to Alzheimer's risk

Pensive older female stands against a grey wall
New research found that cognitively healthy people who self-reported memory problems had early signs of Alzheimer’s, such as high tau buildup in the brain. Jasmin Merdan/Getty Images
  • A recent study found that cognitively healthy people who self-reported memory problems had early signs of Alzheimer’s in their brains.
  • The results may help experts detect Alzheimer’s sooner, allowing earlier treatment.
  • Starting treatment before symptoms begin is likely to be more effective.

A new study, published May 29 in Neurology, recruited neurologically healthy older adults without measurable cognitive impairments, but who had concerns about their memory.

The scientists looked for links between memory loss and signs of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). They found that people who self-reported memory loss were more likely to have elevated levels of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s.

If further research backs up these findings, it could help doctors catch the condition at an earlier stage, allowing treatment to start earlier.

Assessing cognition with memory and thinking skills

A team of researchers from Harvard Medical School recruited 675 older adults with an average age of 72.

First, participants took cognitive tests, which showed that they had no cognitive impairments.

Each recruit had a partner, which could be a child, spouse, or friend — 65% of these partners lived with the participant. 

Participants answered questions about their memory and thinking skills and how well they performed daily tasks. Their partners also answered the same questions about the participants. 

The questions included:

  • “Compared to 1 year ago, do you feel your memory has declined substantially?”
  • “Compared to 1 year ago, do you have more difficulty managing money?” 

Brain scans reveal early signs of Alzheimer’s

Each participant underwent a brain scan to look for protein markers of Alzheimer’s disease called amyloid plaques and tau tangles.

Although the precise mechanisms that lead to Alzheimer’s disease are still being thrashed out, two telltale signs in the brain are associated with its progression:

  • Amyloid plaques protein buildup between neurons
  • Tau tangles protein buildup within neurons

Both of these limit cells’ ability to signal to each other. Eventually, this leads to cell death. Over time, as more cells die, it reduces cognitive ability and the brain can actually shrink or atrophy.

Medical News Today spoke with Verna Porter, MD, a board certified neurologist and director of Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA.

Porter, who was not involved in the study, said these proteins “interfere with the formation of memories at both the biochemical level and structural level through interference with the physical integrity of neural networks. The patterns of impaired memory functions observed relate to changes in the structure and function of the brain.”

In the current study, 60% of participants had elevated levels of amyloid in the brain. People who have higher levels of amyloid are also more likely to have higher levels of tau.

Memory problems and protein buildup in Alzheimer’s

The brain scans showed that individuals with self-reported memory problems had higher levels of tau tangles. This association was even stronger in people who also had higher levels of amyloid.

In other words, people who experience memory problems are more likely to have neurological signs of Alzheimer’s despite being cognitively healthy.

MNT asked lead study author Rebecca E. Amariglio, PhD what surprised her most about the findings, she told us:

“Despite the fact that participants were cognitively unimpaired and functioning normally in their day-to-day, their study partners were still able to detect subtle changes in how they once were compared to a year ago that related to Alzheimer’s biomarkers.”

“Our study included a high percentage of people with elevated amyloid, and for this reason, we were able to also see that memory complaints were associated with higher tau tangles,” Amariglio explained in a press release.

“Our findings suggest that asking older people who have elevated Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers about subjective cognitive decline may be valuable for early detection,” she continued. “This is particularly important since it is predicted that treatments given at the earliest diagnosable form of the disease will be the most effective in slowing the disease.”

Speaking with MNT, Amariglio said that they plan to follow up this study with longitudinal data to understand how this relationship works over time.

What are the warning signs of Alzheimer’s?

MNT asked Porter about early Alzheimer’s signs to look out for. She explained that people should seek out care and a memory evaluation by a medical professional if they or a family member notices that someone is:

  • repetitively asking the same question
  • forgetting a word, phrase, or idea when speaking
  • inserting the wrong word in conversation, for instance, saying “chair” instead of “sofa”
  • taking longer to complete daily chores, tasks, or affairs, such as paying bills or managing the mail
  • frequently misplacing objects or items around the house
  • getting lost while walking or driving in a relatively familiar area
  • having sudden or unexplained changes in mood, personality, or behavior without a clear reason  

Can dementia be prevented?

While a steady cognitive decline is often part of normal aging, Alzheimer’s and other dementias are not. 

While we cannot influence some risk factors, such as our genetics and advancing age, some risk factors for dementia are modifiable.

MNT spoke with Iris Blotenberg, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, who was not involved in the recent research. She explained that modifiable risk factors “are associated with at least one-third of dementia cases.” These factors include:

Blotenberg said that other health conditions can also increase the risk of developing dementia, such as “stroke, heart attack, high blood pressure, and obesity.”

As these conditions are more likely in people who are sedentary, smoke, and drink frequently, addressing these factors can make a real difference to an individual’s dementia risk.

Blotenberg added that hearing loss is a risk factor for dementia because “stimulation is very important for our brain to maintain cognitive function. Therefore, it is highly recommended to use a hearing aid if you or those around you notice a decline in hearing ability.”

Finally, social isolation — something that is increasingly common Trusted Source JAMA Peer reviewed journal Go to source in Western societies Trusted Source American Journal of Clinical Nutrition Peer reviewed journal Go to source — increases the risk of dementia.

“For us as social beings, social engagement is incredibly important and, not least, a vital form of stimulation for our brain,” Blotenberg said. 

MNT also spoke with Geir Selbæk, a professor in the Department of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Oslo in Norway. Alongside the risk factors outlined above, he suggested people should “avoid head injury and areas with high levels of air pollution.” 

Selbæk, who was not involved in the recent study, explained that stress may also be a risk factor. So, finding ways to minimize or deal with daily stresses could be helpful.

“In general, it is beneficial to start as early as possible and maintain a healthy lifestyle, but it is never too late,” Blotenberg said. 

“It is always good to continue to be cognitively active — stimulation is crucial for our brain. Therefore, within your means, stay cognitively, socially, and physically active, but be careful not to overextend yourself,” she concluded.

This article originally appeared on Medical News Today.

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People who report early memory problems and whose partners also suspect they have memory problems have higher levels of tau tangles in the brain, a biomarker associated with Alzheimer’s disease, according to a new study
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