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Published on: March 28, 2013
by Melissa Davey for The Sydney Mornig Herald:
Many believe that forgetfulness, regularly misplacing objects and repeating the same stories in old age mark the start of a spiral to dementia.
But researchers who examined more than 200 people aged over 70 with mild cognitive problems such as these found one quarter had returned to normal brain functioning two years later. Those who were creative, interested in new ideas, read widely and travelled were among the most likely to revert to normal, the study found.
Some other factors seemed to relate to cognitive improvement, such as having good control of blood pressure and being free from arthritis, according to the research published in the online journal PLoS One.
The study leader and a professor of neuropsychiatry, Perminder Sachdev, said the findings meant people suffering from mild forgetfulness or slight behaviour changes should see a doctor so that interventions could be implemented early.
“People who are suffering early symptoms often don’t seek help. They may be fearful of a diagnosis or not think it is serious enough,” said Professor Sachdev from the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing at the University of NSW.
“But this study suggests having cognitive problems may not necessarily lead to decline and there may be certain things you could do to stave off decline for longer.”
Up to one-quarter of those aged over 70 had mild cognitive impairment, he said.
Professor Sachdev stressed that more research was needed to pinpoint the reasons for improvement. “We thought that the rate of improvement in the people we studied was quite high and we wanted to see if there was a measurement error. For example, maybe some people were sick or stressed on the day we first tested them.
“But it seems while this may be true for some of them, there were still a significant proportion who genuinely did get better.”
Researchers would follow up the participants every two years, he said.
Alzheimer’s Australia national research manager, Chris Hatherly, said it could be difficult to pinpoint the cause of early cognitive impairment.
“It could be caused by degenerative disease leading to dementia but also by mental health problems, hormone changes or undiagnosed pain or stress,” he said. “So improvement might be more likely, depending on the cause.”
He believes those with more open personalities performed better in the study because they were more likely to challenge their brain through trying new things, reading books, socialising with friends and doing crossword puzzles.
“Anything that makes people learn is exercise for the brain,” Dr Hatherly said.
“On top of that it is important to exercise and eat a healthy diet, because the brain is an organ after all and needs good blood flow.”
People often waited one or two years after experiencing the first signs of mental decline to get help, he said, but 10 per cent of those with mild problems would develop dementia within two years.
He stressed the importance of seeing a doctor early. “Nobody wants to be diagnosed with dementia,” he said.
“In the same way 30 years ago people were terrified of cancer, more than anything because nothing could be done. People fear dementia because there is no cure. “But there are treatments that can delay dementia and interventions we can put in place early.”
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