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A decline in memory and cognitive (thinking) function is considered by many authorities to be a normal consequence of aging.1, 2 While age-related cognitive decline (ARCD) is therefore not considered a disease, authorities differ on whether ARCD is in part related to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia3 or whether it is a distinct entity.4, 5 People with ARCD experience deterioration in memory and learning, attention and concentration, thinking, use of language, and other mental functions.6, 7
ARCD usually occurs gradually. Sudden cognitive decline is not a part of normal aging. When people develop an illness such as Alzheimer’s disease, mental deterioration usually happens quickly. In contrast, cognitive performance in elderly adults normally remains stable over many years, with only slight declines in short-term memory and reaction times.8
People sometimes believe they are having memory problems when there are no actual decreases in memory performance.9 Therefore, assessment of cognitive function requires specialized professional evaluation. Psychologists and psychiatrists employ sophisticated cognitive testing methods to detect and accurately measure the severity of cognitive decline.10, 11, 12, 13 A qualified health professional should be consulted if memory impairment is suspected.
Some older people have greater memory and cognitive difficulties than do those undergoing normal aging, but their symptoms are not so severe as to justify a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Some of these people go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease; others do not. Authorities have suggested several terms for this middle category, including “mild cognitive impairment”14 and “mild neurocognitive disorder.”15 Risk factors for ARCD include advancing age, female gender, prior heart attack, and heart failure.
People with ARCD experience deterioration in memory and learning, attention and concentration, thinking, use of language, and other mental functions.
Cigarette smokers and people with high levels of education appear to have some protection against ARCD.16 The reason for each of these associations remains unknown. However, as cigarette smoking generally is not associated with other health benefits and results in serious health risks, doctors recommend abstinence from smoking, even by people at risk of ARCD.
A large, preliminary study in 1998 found associations between hypertension and deterioration in mental function.17 Research is needed to determine if lowering blood pressure is effective for preventing ARCD.
A randomized, controlled trial determined that group exercise has beneficial effects on physiological and cognitive functioning, and well-being in older people. At the end of the trial, the exercisers showed significant improvements in reaction time, memory span, and measures of well-being when compared with controls.18 Going for walks may be enough to modify the usual age-related decline in reaction time. Faster reaction times were associated with walking exercise in a British study.19 The results of these two studies suggest a possible role for exercise in preventing ARCD. However, controlled trials in people with ARCD are needed to confirm these observations.
Psychological counseling and training to improve memory have produced improvements in cognitive function in persons with ARCD.20, 21, 22
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The information presented by Healthnotes is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications. Information expires June 2017.