Alzheimer's care

Pearl Cummings, 88, hangs out in the living room of a West Hollywood care home.
See full story (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

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The “senior moments” of unreliable memory may be a scientifically valid way to predict Alzheimer’s disease, after all.

Alzheimer’s disease experts gathered at an international conference in Boston this week have a fancy name for that sense that your noggin’ is just not ticking like the old days – subjective cognitive impairment.

Studies in the last few years have been trying to bridge a divide between the anecdotal evidence of memory decline and objective, measureable signs, such as atrophy of certain brain regions evident through imaging devices, genetic anomalies on a cellular level, and other clinical tests. Studies suggest that these measurable cognitive declines can lead to Alzheimer’s, and possibly to early dementia.

Now, the same researchers are turning to “senior moments” as a potential precursor to a precursor.

There are still some serious hurdles to these connections, among them the recognition that some people with measurable cognitive declines don’t develop Alzheimer’s, and sometimes recover.

Senior moments could also be related to stress, depression and cardiovascular disease. A consortium of researchers has been trying to come up with a framework that would negotiate those pitfalls and come up with workable data.

Meanwhile, researchers at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston gave the conference an early look at research that suggests subjective reports of cognitive decline correlate with increased levels of a piece of protein known to form plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. These beta-amyloid peptides clump up and interfere with signaling in the brain.

The 131 people scanned, all in their 70s, had no other neurological or psychiatric illness, and reported they had worse memory than their peers, the authors noted.

Other researchers at the convention reported results of a long-term study using a national database of elderly nurses who had been assessed for a genetic risk factor associated with the disease. Those nurses had been asked about memory concerns and given frequent memory tests for six years. A comparison of their subjective answers and the test results suggested stronger correlation for the nurses with the bio-marker, compared with their peers.

A study published earlier this year also turned up some connections with senior moments. The University of Bonn, Germany, team studied nearly 3,000 people who had not been diagnosed with dementia. Their data suggest that the strongest correlation with Alzheimer’s disease came from those with late mild cognitive impairment. But even those who reported early memory concerns appeared more likely to progress to measurable signs of Alzheimer’s disease than those who reported no such concerns, the researchers found.