- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

CHICAGO (AP) — A study found that in a disturbing number of cases, embarrassing “senior moments” such as forgetting a recent conversation or drawing a blank on someone’s name really may be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease after all.

Chicago scientists reached that conclusion after autopsies on the brains of 134 older persons who had appeared to be mentally normal apart from some subtle forgetfulness.

Occasional forgetfulness is often written off as a normal part of growing old and nothing about which to get alarmed. And in most cases, that is probably true.

But the scientists were surprised to find that the brains of more than one-third of the participants were riddled with waxy protein clumps and other signs of degeneration that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study “questions the acceptability of minor episodic memory loss in older adults as normal,” said Dr. Carol Lippa, director of the memory disorders program at Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. She had no part in the study.

The study appears in today’s issue of Neurology, the American Academy of Neurology’s scientific journal.

Dallas Anderson, an Alzheimer’s scientist at the National Institute on Aging, which funded the research, called the results “very plausible and hopeful.” Mr. Anderson said that scientists are trying to pinpoint the earliest point in the Alzheimer’s disease process, which could lead to earlier treatments.

Participants in the study had amounts of brain deterioration similar to those found in Alzheimer’s patients who were severely debilitated by the mind-robbing disease before their deaths. The researchers said that raises the question of why some afflicted people, but not others, can function normally.

“There’s something about these people that allows them to have large amounts of pathology without obvious memory problems,” said lead author Dr. David Bennett, an Alzheimer’s researcher at Rush University Medical Center. “We need to understand why that is.”

His theory, supported by earlier research, is that high levels of education and feelings of social connectedness can help preserve brain function. Dr. Bennett said he thinks that helps create a “neural reserve” that enables people to tolerate Alzheimer’s-induced brain deterioration without showing signs of dementia.

Some researchers think that mentally stimulating tasks — such as doing crossword puzzles, taking classes or reading — can help prevent Alzheimer’s. But Dr. Bennett said his new findings suggest that in some people, these tasks also might enable the brain to compensate for the disease.

Study participants had slightly lower scores on measures of episodic memory, which tested how well they recalled a story that recently had been read to them.

Episodic memory loss includes things such as forgetting the name of a new acquaintance, a recent conversation or an upcoming appointment.

People commonly undergo an age-related slowing of the ability to retrieve information. They might forget where they put their keys, but they usually remember eventually, Dr. Bennett said.

But when Alzheimer’s is involved, new information never is properly stored, meaning the affected person never learned it well enough to be able to retrieve it, he said.

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