Older people who complain their "mind is going" may in fact actually be losing a part of their brain along with their memory.
A new study has revealed that people over the age of 60, who complained of significant memory problems but still had normal performance on memory tests had reduced gray matter density in their brains.
Researchers from the Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire, looked at a group of 120 seniors, comprised of 40 subjects who complained of memory loss in the absence of dementia, 40 subjects with early dementia, and 40 healthy comparison subjects.
None had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer's disease.
Patients with psychiatric disorders, significant brain disease or those younger than 60 years were excluded.
They say the group had a three-percent reduction in gray matter density in an area known to be important for memory; there was a four-percent reduction among individuals diagnosed with MCI.
Study author Andrew Saykin, PsyD, is a Professor of Psychiatry and Radiology at Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and an affiliate member of the American Academy of Neurology and he says significant memory loss complaints may indicate a very early "pre-MCI" stage of dementia for some people.
This he says is important as early detection is critical as new disease modifying medications are developed in an effort to slow and ultimately prevent Alzheimer's disease.
While normal aging, MCI and Alzheimer's disease have been associated with the loss of gray matter in the brain, this is believed to be the first study to quantitatively examine the severity of cognitive complaints in older adults and directly assess the relationship to gray matter loss.
Saykin says the findings highlight the importance of cognitive complaints in older adults, and suggests that those who complain of significant memory problems should be evaluated and closely monitored over time.
Memory complaints are a cardinal feature of MCI which indicates a high risk for Alzheimer's disease, and are reported in 25 to 50-percent of the older adult population.
Saykin and his colleagues plan to follow the study group over time in order to assess the significance of these correlations.
They point out that their subjects had relatively high educational levels and IQ scores, so future studies should evaluate patients with lower levels of mental functioning.
The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging, the Alzheimer's Association, the Hitchcock Foundation, the Ira DeCamp Foundation, the National Science Foundation, New Hampshire Hospital and the National Alliance for Medical Image Computing.
It is published in the September 12, 2006, issue of Neurology, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology, an association of more than 19,000 neurologists.