Study: Older adults worried about memory loss have structural changes in brains

April 15 (UPI) -- People who complain of memory loss are experiencing cognitive decline because of changes in brain structure, a study published Friday found.

Among 900 older adults included in the study, those who reported memory problems had evidence of brain lesions called white matter hyperintensities on magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, scans, the data, published Friday by JAMA Network Open, showed.


Those with larger white matter hyperintensities, or more of them, suffered up to 428% faster cognitive decline with age than others without these lesions, the researchers said.

"Subjective memory complaints were associated with larger white matter hyperintensity volumes and a faster cognitive decline," researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and the University of California-Davis wrote.

"The association between subjective memory complaints, white matter hyperintensity volumes and cognitive decline did not differ by age, sex or race and ethnicity," they said.

Studies have estimated that as many as half of all older adults nationally are concerned about developing dementia, or age-related decline in brain function, including memory loss.

About 6 million people in the United States have dementia, with Alzheimer's disease being the most common form of the condition, according to the Alzheimer's Association.


However, as many as one in nine adults age 45 years and older in the United States report some degree of memory loss, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

Concerns regarding "everyday memory," or subjective memory complaints, may be an early sign of cognitive impairment, with studies suggesting that people who report these problems may be at higher risk for faster cognitive decline and dementia.

Conversely, previous research suggests that many people who develop Alzheimer's disease may not be aware of gradual memory loss.

For this study, the researchers surveyed 900 adults age 65 years and older and asked them to self-assess their memory.

The study participants also underwent MRI scans to identify any structural changes in their brains, and they were tested for cognitive function, the researchers said.

Of the study participants, 658, or 73% reported having "moderate" concerns regarding memory loss, while 84, or 9%, described themselves as "very worried," the data showed.

Those who indicated they were moderately concerned had larger white matter hyperintensity volumes on MRI than those who were not concerned, and performed less well on tests for cognitive function, the researchers said.

Participants who were "very worried" had the highest white matter hyperintensity volumes in the study and had the worst scores on cognitive function tests, according to the researchers.


"Subjective memory complaints, which are frequently reported by elderly individuals, are an important sign of cognitive impairment, especially among individuals with abnormalities in brain structure, such as large white matter hyperintensity volumes," the researchers wrote.

"Obtaining information about subjective memory complaints from older adults may provide essential information about their future risk of cognitive impairment," they said.

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