Memory Loss Less Common in Older Americans
A new study published today provides some much needed good - there's a downward trend in the rate of "cognitive impairment" among people 70 years old and older.
A research team from the University of Michigan Medical School analyzed data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a national survey of older Americans funded by the National Institute on Aging and based at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR), and found the prevalence of cognitive impairment in this age group went down by 3.5 percentage points between 1993 and 2002 - from 12.2 percent to 8.7 percent, representing a difference of hundreds of thousands of people.
The researchers hypothesize that this decline is due to more formal education, higher economic status, and better preventative medicine that keeps high blood pressure and high cholesterol under control. "From these results, we can say that brain health among older Americans seems to have improved in the decade studied, and that education and wealth may be a big piece of the puzzle," says lead author Dr. Kenneth Langa, an associate professor of internal medicine who also holds appointments in ISR and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.
Increasing opportunities for formal education that happened during this generation's lifetime appear to have been an important preventative measure. Researchers noted that school attendance requirements, high school graduation rates and college or technical school enrollment rates all increased during the years when the adults in the study were children and young adults.
In 1990, 53 percent of people over age 65 had a high school diploma, but by 2003 that proportion had increased to 72 percent. The rates of college-educated older people also rose from 11 percent to 17 percent. In recent years, research has suggested that the more education a person receives early in life, the more his or her brain will be able to stay sharp later.
Better medicines that control blood pressure and cholesterol are also believed to have been a factor. However, researchers are worried that Type 2 Diabetes, unhealthy diets, and lack of exercise could reverse these trends in the elderly, the middle-aged, and younger people.
So what does this mean for those of us who worry about the threat of Alzheimer's and want to do what we can to be proactive? Researchers encourage everyone - no matter what their age - to engage in mental and physical exercise, as well as social activities that keep you engaged in the world. So it goes back to following the advice that our mothers gave us as children - eat right, exercise, do our homework (or mental work), go to the doctor, and find time to play with others (socialize). Little did our mothers know that they were giving us a prescription to follow during our lifetime that might help prevent cognitive impairment.