Researchers of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have uncovered that individuals with dementia are unaware that their memory is fading. Additionally, this lack of awareness can begin to occur up to three-years prior to diagnosis.
Dementia is a condition which impairs a person’s ability to think and speak and leads to memory loss. There are many different types of dementia, the most common being Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in America, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It is estimated that 5.3 million Americans currently have Alzheimer’s disease.
Lack of awareness regarding memory loss is common in those with dementia, but until now researchers were unsure of how prevalent it was, when it develops or why some people are more affected by it than others.
For the latest research 2,092 participants from three longitudinal studies – who reported no memory loss or cognitive impairment prior to the study – were analyzed. For 10 years participant were tested annually to evaluate cognitive abilities. The average age of participants was 75.
From the group, 239 participants were diagnosed with dementia. In these participants, memory awareness started out as stable. However, researchers did observe that awareness dropped sharply about 2.6 years prior to dementia diagnosis in some cases.
Robert Wilson, Ph.D., study author, said, “Although there were individual differences in when the unawareness started and how fast it progressed, virtually everyone had a lack of awareness of their memory problems at some point in the disease.”
Researchers also noted that memory loss awareness declined earlier in younger participants as opposed to older ones. This finding was surprising because it is typically recognized that memory loss occurs more in older adults and not younger ones.
Aside from tracking memory loss, researchers also examined the brains of 385 participants who died over the course of the study. Researchers were specifically looking for seven brain changes which commonly occur in individuals with dementia. Three changes in particular are associated with a fast decline in memory.
Wilson concluded, “The study underscores the importance of family members looking for help from doctors and doctors getting information from friends or family when making decisions about whether a person has dementia, since people may be unable to give reliable reports about the history of their own memory or thinking.”
The findings were published in Neurology.