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As the American Academy of Neurology points out, dementia is not a specific disease. It is a descriptive term for a collection of symptoms that can be caused by a number of disorders that affect the brain. People with dementia have significantly impaired intellectual functioning that interferes with normal activities and relationships. They also lose their ability to solve problems and maintain emotional control, and they may experience personality changes and behavioral problems, such as agitation, delusions, and hallucinations.
While memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, memory loss by itself does not mean that a person has dementia. Doctors diagnose dementia only if two or more brain functions -- such as memory and language skills -- are significantly impaired without loss of consciousness. Although it is common in very elderly individuals, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process.
Research in this week’s issue of Neurology, shows that changes in walking speed in late life may signal the early stages of dementia known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
The study used a new technique that included installing infrared sensors in the ceilings of homes, a system designed to detect walking movement in hallways to get a better idea of how even subtle changes in walking speed may correlate with the development of MCI.
The study involved 93 people age 70 or older who lived alone. Of those, 54 participants had no cognitive impairment, 31 had non-memory related MCI and eight had memory-related MCI. Participants were given memory and thinking tests and had their walking speed monitored at their homes unobtrusively over a three-year period. Participants were placed in groups of slow, moderate or fast based on their average weekly walking speed and how much their walking speed fluctuated at home.
The study found that people with non-memory related MCI were nine times more likely to be slow walkers than moderate or fast walkers and the amount of the fluctuation in walking speed was also associated with MCI.
As the authors point out, if we can detect dementia at its earliest phases, then we can work to maintain people's independence, provide treatments and ultimately develop ways to prevent the disease from developing.
Presented today at the International Conference on Social Identity and Health is a study on attitude towards our age. The study looked at the how our attitude has a massive impact on the likelihood of being diagnosed with dementia. Their research shows that when seniors see themselves as 'older' their performance on a standard dementia screening test declines dramatically; making them five times more likely to meet the criteria for dementia.
The research involved 68 people aged between 60 and 70 years, who were primed to either feel older or younger than others taking part in the study. Those in the 'older' group were told the participants ranged in age from 40 to 70, encouraging them to think of themselves as being at the upper end of the age spectrum, while those in the 'younger' group were told that participants ages ranged from 60 to 90 years, encouraging them to think of themselves at the lower end of the age spectrum. All participants were then given one of two articles to read, which either focused on the effects of age on memory loss or on the impact of ageing on general cognitive ability.
The participants then completed a series of standard clinical tests; 70 per cent of people, who were encouraged to see themselves as older and to believe that aging was associated with a general decline in ability, met the criterion for dementia. This was compared to an average of 14 per cent in the other groups.
The research shows that the effect of age perceptions on performance can be dramatic, and that seeing oneself as 'older' significantly increases a person's risk of being diagnosed with dementia on such tests. It highlights the importance of taking a person's attitude towards their age into account when assessing for dementia.