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Published on: August 27, 2015
by Sarah Knapton for The Telegraph:
Senior moments such as misplacing spectacles or walking into a room then forgetting the reason for entering, lead many older people to worry that they are on a slippery slope to dementia.
But a new study suggests that noticing memory lapses is actually a good thing.
New research shows that people with dementia tend to lose awareness that their memory is going two to three years before the condition develops.
So people who notice their little slips can be safe in the knowledge that any significant mental decline is years off, and may not develop at all.
“Our findings suggest that unawareness of one’s memory problems is an inevitable feature of late-life dementia, driven by a build-up of dementia-related changes in the brain,” said lead researcher Dr Robert Wilson, from Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago.
“Lack of awareness of memory loss is common in dementia, but we haven’t known much about how common it is, when it develops or why some people seem more affected than others.
“Most studies of memory unawareness in dementia have focused on people who have already been diagnosed. In contrast, this new study began following older adults before they showed signs of dementia.”
The team tracked the progress of more than 2,000 older individuals with an average age of 76 who were free of dementia at the start of the study.
Over a period of 10 years, they were given annual tests of memory and thinking ability. Participants were also asked how often they had trouble remembering things, and how they rated their memory.
For the 239 volunteers diagnosed with dementia, memory awareness began to drop sharply an average of 2.6 years before they developed symptoms. Several years of memory decline followed.
“Although there were individual differences in when the unawareness started and how fast it progressed, virtually everyone had a lack of awareness of their memory problems at some point in the disease,” said Dr Wilson.
Surprisingly, loss of memory awareness appeared earlier in younger participants. The explanation may be that older people are more likely to expect their memories to fade as a normal part of ageing, said the scientists.
An examination of the brains of 385 individuals who died during the study revealed three dementia-relate changes associated with rapid decline of memory awareness.
Dr Clare Walton, Research Manager at Alzheimer’s Society said: “Memory loss can be an important first sign of dementia however this study shows that people are not always aware of changes to their memory in the early stages of the condition.
“Often, friends and family are the first to recognise the warning signs. People who are concerned about the memory of someone close to them should encourage that person to visit their GP.
“A diagnosis can help people with dementia plan for the future and get access to vital care a
“We need more research to improve our understanding of how memory is affected as people get older and how this differs in people with dementia. This will allow us to develop better ways to diagnose and support people with the condition as early as possible.”
The findings appear in the journal Neurology.
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