It’s so common it’s usually overlooked. Just a case of getting older. The person with the complaint thinks nothing of it. Family members aren’t concerned. Physicians don’t see a need to do any tests or ask any questions.

And yet this seemingly innocuous condition is not one to ignore. Recent research suggests it could foretell dementia many years before the first symptoms appear. . .

Here’s what the scientists found.

Over 1000 women aged 65 or over— and cognitively healthy as confirmed by tests – took part in the study.

They were asked to give a yes or no response to a very simple, subjective question.

The question was, “Do you feel you have more memory problems than most?” They were asked the same question two years later and then again every four years until 18 years had elapsed.

The researchers took into account any health factors that could invalidate the study, such as participants who suffered with hypertension, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and depression.

At the end of this period the women completed another series of cognitive tests.

70% More Likely To Receive A Diagnosis of Memory Loss

The results were that after 18 years, the 89 women who answered “yes” at the beginning of the study were 70% more likely to be diagnosed with thinking and memory problems than those who answered “no.”

Just over half (53%) of those with subjective memory complaints went on to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia 18 years later compared to 38% who reported no memory complaints at the start of the study.

Women who answered “yes” to the question ten years before the end of the study were 90% more likely to be diagnosed with MCI or dementia. This more that trebled, growing to three times as many when the question was asked just four years before the end of the study.

“A Possible Early Warning Sign”

Allison Kaup, Ph.D., of the San Francisco VA Medical Center, was one of the study authors. “Our findings,” she declares, “though modest, provide further evidence that memory complaints in aging deserve close attention as a possible early warning sign of future thinking and memory problems, even several years in advance.”

The association between subjective memory complaints and later diagnosis is not a new discovery, but this study was unusual in its length and in the number of factors the researchers took into consideration.

Sorry to say, we do not know the specifics of what the women meant when they said they had more memory complaints than most other people. We also don’t know when they would have been diagnosed with MCI or dementia because this assessment was only carried out at the end of the 18-year study. Some may have come down with MCI or dementia years before the final, comprehensive assessment was made.

Other lifestyle factors such as sleep patterns, smoking or alcohol consumption were not considered. It’s a pity because this was a large, long-term study and might have yielded useful insights.

Here’s the Big Takeaway

Never mind the shortcomings, the study does give us one big takeaway: It is known that brain changes and amyloid deposits take place many years before diagnosis of dementia and Alzheimer’s. This study demonstrates that if you feel like your memory isn’t working right, it may well indicate early brain changes.

Although early objective indicators such as blood and eye tests would be better, having a sense that your memory is not as good as it was, even if nothing shows up on memory tests, could prove to be a useful early warning.

Why is it useful? Because there are things you can do to slow and reverse memory loss – things like sound nutrition, good restful sleep, exercise, and certain supplements. We talk about them in these pages every week, so please keep coming back!


  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed /26511452

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