Is it Alzheimer’s? Early memory problems linked to later dementia, study finds

But lifestyle changes like diet and exercise may stave off cognitive decline, Fred Hutch expert says
dementia patient
People who reported early troubles with memory and thinking were more likely to develop clinical cognition problems – and dementia – years later, a study finds. Photo by The Washington Post / Getty Images

Anyone of a certain age who’s ever forgotten the car keys or blanked on a longtime colleague’s name has felt the pang of worry: Is it just a “senior moment” – or the first step on the path to dementia?

Answering that question can be complicated, according to new research by University of Kentucky Alzheimer’s disease experts that finds that older people who report early memory problems may be more likely to develop devastating brain disease.

More than 530 volunteers with an average age of 73 were tracked for a decade, with annual tests of their memory and thinking skills. More than half of the participants reported changes in memory — and those who did were nearly three times more likely than participants who reported no changes to develop cognitive problems over time.

About one in six participants in the study developed diagnosed dementia; and 80 percent of the individuals diagnosed reported early memory complaints, according to the study published Wednesday in the journal Neurology.

“This is everyone’s fear,” said Dr. Monique Cherrier, a neuropsychologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who researches cognition and reviewed the results. “The first thought is, ‘My memory is going. I’m going to get dementia.’”

The truth is, aging is the biggest risk factor for memory problems and dementia, said Cherrier, who works with Fred Hutch’s Cancer Prevention Program. “If I see a study where the mean age is in the 70s … that’s the group that really starts to spike,” she said.

That means the findings in this study don’t necessarily apply to Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s who are just starting to be troubled by memory lapses, she said.

Even among the older participants, the researchers found that there was a wide interval between the first signs of memory trouble and true problems – about nine years for clinical impairment and about a dozen years for actual dementia, said Dr. Richard Kryscio, of the Sanders-Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky. Participants were part of the ongoing Biologically Resilient Adults in Neurological Studies, or BRAiNS, group.

“These findings suggest that there may be a window for intervention before a diagnosable problem shows up,” he said.

Cherrier agreed. While there’s still no preventive therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, which affects about 5.2 million people in America, certain lifestyle choices appear to help.

Cognitive training like the work Cherrier does with cancer patients struggling with “chemo brain,” the effects of chemotherapy drugs on thinking and memory, may help. New research also suggests that exercise and eating right, including following the so-called Mediterranean diet, can stave off memory decline.

“Everything you do for your brain health is good for general health as well,” she added.

The new paper is among several recent studies to suggest that patients’ own worries about memory may precede clinical changes in the brain that indicate disease, noted Dr. Heather Snyder, director of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“There may be something here,” said Snyder. “However, there’s still a lot we don’t understand.”

Memory loss may be a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, but only when it disrupts daily life or represents a marked departure from previous ability. The organization offers 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s on its website.

“It’s more a change in something you’ve always done,” Snyder said. “It’s not forgetting your purse or bag – it’s forgetting what your purse or bag is for.”

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JoNel Aleccia is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and Prior to that she was a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest. Reach her at

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