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Cognitive Decline May Begin 15 Years Before Death

Posted by Jane Akre
Thursday, August 28, 2008 3:00 PM EST
Category: Major Medical, Protecting Your Family, In The Workplace
Tags: Alzheimer's Disease, Alzheimer's and Dementia, Dementia, Aging, Mental Health, FDA and Prescription Drugs

Mental decline may begin much sooner than we thought, this study finds.



IMAGE SOURCE:  Wikimedia Commons/ Alzheimer’s in stages/ author: NASA  


A decline in verbal skills may indicate that an age-related cognitive decline is underway.

A new study reports that key mental skills drop by as much as 15 years before death, even without dementia. The skills in decline include verbal ability, spatial reasoning and perceptual speed.

This is not part of the aging process.

So why are we losing abilities?   Researchers from Goteborg University in Sweden, credit undetected dementia, insufficient physical and mental exercise, and perhaps early heart disease that interrupt blood flow to the brain.

Valgeir Thorvaldsson, from the department of psychology at Goteborg University, in Sweden said,  "[And] our findings clearly showed there to be a pattern of terminal decline, even among relatively healthy individuals, that the brain changes that influence our cognitive abilities in old age occur over a relatively long period of time, even among individuals who remain non-demented until they die."

The researchers said they were surprised at how far in advance of death the decline begins.

Verbal ability started a sharply accelerated decline more than six years prior to death, while it’s 7.8 years for spatial ability.

However, perceptual speed, the ability to quickly compare figures, begins to decline as much as 15 years before death.

In the study, 288 people without dementia were followed from age 70 to their death, which occurred at an average age of 84. Their mental skills were measured up to a dozen times over 30 years.

On a more positive note, the study finds that the elderly remain stable in their verbal abilities until they are burdened by diseases. 

"A change in verbal ability might therefore be considered a critical marker for degeneration in health in older people," Thorvaldsson said.

The peak of mental functioning is reached for most people between the ages of 35 to 40 after which a steady decline begins, then speeds up before death.  The Swedish team was trying to determine when the acceleration starts.

The research may help those who work with the elderly derive markers when trying to determine a degeneration of mental health.

Age-related cognitive decline has long been evaluated along with dementia.

The value of the study may be the distinction it makes between the normal aging process and the dying process.

The work is presented to today’s issue of Neurology. 

The changes may not be inevitable.

Evidence suggests among those who participate in regular strenuous aerobic activity, that there is four times less shrinkage in the brain when compared to those who do not exercise.

The average U.S. life expectancy is now 78 years up 30 years since 1900 and 10 years since 1950. And while aging fears are often used in the hiring of corporate America some believe those fears are misplaced.

A 45-year-old and a 75-year-old "absolutely" have the same mental capacity, and energy is a function of health rather than aging, said Neil Resnick, chief of geriatric medicine at the University of Pittsburgh tells the Wall Street Journal.

But much of our genealogy influences how fact we decline. John Rowe, a physician and former Aetna Inc. chair tells the Wall Street Journal that our genes influence how much and how fast we decline. He says genes account for about 30 percent of longevity and perhaps half of age-related changes in the brain.

The implications for U.S. society are huge. The over-65 population will double to 80 million in 30 years when one in five will be older than 65, up from one in eight now. # 

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