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'Senior Moments' Could Be Early Signs of Dementia: Study

Sep 25, 2014
TIME Health
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So-called senior moments, like failing to recall your missing sunglasses are perched on your head, might not be just benign mishaps, but early harbingers of Alzheimer's disease, reports a new paper.

The study, published in the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, suggests that self-reported worries about memory lapses are strong predictors of a later diagnosis of dementia. The research indicates that it takes about 12 years from initial signs of forgetfulness for the problem to become severe enough to be called dementia.

Of course, forgetfulness is a natural part of aging, and a spotty memory by no means guarantees that bigger problems are in the works, the researchers say. However, that does not mean concerns about errant sunglasses should necessarily be brushed off.

That's because "there may be a significant window of opportunity for intervention before a diagnosable problem shows up,” Richard Kryscio, the study’s lead author and associate director of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the University of Kentucky, said in a statement. "Certainly, someone with memory issues should report it to their doctor so they can be followed.”

Right now, there are no definitive ways of preventing dementia, though early research suggests that a healthy lifestyle — including exercise, good eating habits and abstention from smoking — might help ward off the disease, the National Institutes of Health says. Antianxiety drugs have also recently been fingered as possibly increasing a user’s risk of developing memory problems later in life.

In the study, scientists at the University of Kentucky asked 531 people, average age 73 and without dementia, if they had noticed any changes in their memory in the past year.

People who reported such changes were about three times more likely to develop dementia than those who reported no such symptoms. In fact, of the 1 in 6 participants who developed dementia, 80% of those first reported memory changes.

Meanwhile, separate research published in Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology suggests that people with dementia may not remember specific events, like a visit from a relative, but do remember how those forgotten events made them feel.

"This confirms that the emotional life of an Alzheimer's patient is alive and well," Edmarie Guzman-Velez, lead author and a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Iowa, said in a statement. "Our findings should empower caregivers by showing them that their actions toward patients really do matter.”

In the study, 17 people with Alzheimer's disease and 17 healthy participants were asked to view 20 minutes of sad and happy movies. About five minutes after each movie clip finished, participants took a test on what they’d watched: though participants with dementia remembered much less about films than did the nondementia participants — one didn't remember watching any movies — they still reported heightened levels of either sadness or happiness for up to 30 minutes after watching the films, according to the research.

In general, the researchers said, sadness lasted longer than happiness.

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