Reduction in the size of the hippocampus, slight memory loss in healthy elderly
As people get older, it is common to experience memory loss. However, older people who have symptoms of forgetfulness often score within the normal range on psychological tests, although memory loss may gradually worsen. It's unknown if these symptoms are an early sign of an underlying brain condition.
The authors of the present research study wondered if mild memory loss could occur in an otherwise healthy older person individual, where a slight memory loss has been being characteristic of a reduced size in the the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and which has been noted as a site of degeneration resulting from aging.
Scientists at the Center for Aging and Dementia at New York University used two techniques that are equally sensitive to detecting changes in the size of the hippocampus: computed tomography and MRI. They looked at two types of memory: immediate memory and recent memory. To probe immediate memory, scientists asked study participants to immediately repeat a string of numbers it was read to them. To probe recent memory, participants read a paragraph or displayed cards with pictures and numbers on them. They were then asked to recall as many paragraph content or as many number-pattern pairs as they could. Scientists performed statistical analyzes to examine whether having a reduced hippocampus size affected the performance of participants in memory tests.
The researchers performed a full set of additional tests to make sure the 154 participants included in the study were medically healthy and cognitively intact. Participants were excluded from the study if, for example, they had cardiovascular, endocrine or psychiatric disorders, or if they had a history of depression or heavy drinking.
A decrease in the size of the hippocampus and a slight loss of memory (although cognitively healthy) may indicate an increased risk of developing dementia.
The effect of age on the size of the hippocampus
The study participants were between 55 and 88 years old. The older the participant, the higher the prevalence of reduced hippocampal size. Among participants aged 55 to 65, about a tenth had a reduction in the size of the hippocampus. For people aged 66 to 76, the prevalence has increased to one third. In the oldest age group, 77 to 88, more than half of the participants had a reduced hippocampal size.
The effect of sex on the size of the hippocampus
More men had a reduced hippocampus size than women. The percentage of males with reduced hippocampal size was almost double that of females. The authors report that age was not a factor in this difference, since the mean age of the men in the study was not statistically different from the mean age of the women. Additionally, the increased prevalence of having a reduced hippocampus size with age, as discussed in the previous section, appears to be more pronounced in men than in women.
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The effect of the size of the hippocampus on memory performance
Participants who had reduced the size of the hippocampus had impaired performance on recent memory paragraph recall tests than those with a normal-sized hippocampus. While those with reduced hippocampal size also showed impaired performance on nonverbal pairing tests and recent memory design numbers, the differences simply did not reach statistical significance. The researchers found no difference in performance on immediate memory tests between study participants who had and who did not have a reduced hippocampus ifze. The study authors controlled for age and education in their statistical analyzes, as these factors were found to influence performance on memory tests.
RELEVANCE TO ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE AND DEMENTIA
The Moment of a Healthy Aging Brain Transition to a Brain Showing Early Stages of Alzheimer's Disease the disease is under active investigation by researchers. There are several avenues of investigation suggesting that the hippocampus could be the site of early degeneration in aging and Alzheimer's disease.
Previous studies have indicated that older participants with reduced hippocampal size and mild cognitive impairment have an increased risk of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The authors of the present study suggest that a decrease in the size of the hippocampus and a slight loss of memory (although otherwise cognitively healthy) may indicate an increased risk of developing dementia. Further studies are needed to examine this possibility.
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