WEDNESDAY, Jan. 25 (HealthDay News) -- Subtle problems with
memory and thinking skills -- known as mild cognitive impairment --
often precede Alzheimer's disease, and a new study finds that men
are at higher risk for these troubles than women.
Lead researcher Rosebud Roberts and her colleagues looked at
1,450 people from Olmsted County, Minn., who were between 70 and 89
years old and free of dementia in October 2004. Some three and a
half years later, 296 had become mildly impaired.
New cases of mild cognitive impairment were consistently higher
among men, except in the 85 to 89 age group. Overall, the risk was
40 percent higher for men.
Having a high school or less education was also linked to
greater risk, and the study found that the combination of being
male without college education brought an "unexpectedly high risk"
of impairment that did not involve memory loss.
Currently married people were at lower risk of mild cognitive
impairment than those widowed, divorced or single.
"One of every 16 persons in this age group develops this condition in a given year," said Roberts, a professor of epidemiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "As we have a large increase in baby boomers reaching the age of 65 and older, this is going to have a tremendous impact."
Bill Thies, chief medical and scientific officer for the
Alzheimer's Association, commented on the study.
"It's an interesting observation that mild cognitive impairment is a little more common in men than in women," he said. "It's not clear what that means or even if it's universal. Certainly, it hadn't been reported before in much smaller studies. It may be that they found it because their study is big."
Roberts said the difference may be due to timing of risk factors
for dementia. "Diseases such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension
may occur at an earlier age in men than women," she said. In future
studies, the risk factors should be studied separately for men and
women, the study authors said.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, everyone who develops
the age-related brain disorder experiences a stage of minimal
impairment. "People with mild cognitive impairment experience a
decline in memory, reasoning or visual perception that's measurable
and noticeable to themselves or to others, but not severe enough to
be diagnosed as Alzheimer's or another dementia," the association
However, not everyone who has mild cognitive impairment will go
on to develop Alzheimer's.
For the study, participants met with nurses and physicians and
took tests at 15-month intervals to measure memory, executive
function, visual-spatial skills, dementia symptoms and
neurological, psychological and mental status. At each interval, a
panel of examiners made a fresh assessment of the participants'
The study findings are published in the Jan. 25 online edition
of the journal
About 88 percent of study participants who developed mild
cognitive impairment each year either continued with the condition
or progressed to full-blown dementia. The others reverted to normal
when tested later, but these were marginal cases, Roberts said.
Most of the participants were of European ancestry, and the
researchers said the findings might be different for other ethnic
Thies said he was surprised by the high percentage of people
living in the community with cognitive impairment that caused them
difficulties. "The issue is even broader than Alzheimer's disease,
and the importance of finding medications for cognitive decline is
even more important than we might have thought," he said.
Having the occasional "senior moment" -- forgetting an
acquaintance's name, for instance -- does not mean you have mild
cognitive impairment, Roberts explained.
It becomes more significant "if the individual notices this is
happening more frequently, that it's affecting other aspects of
their life," she said. "They're having more problems balancing
their checkbook or remembering the names of people they know very
well -- their own nieces or grandchildren or whatever."
Recognizing whether you're experiencing simple forgetfulness or
a warning sign of impairment isn't always cut and dried, Thies
One day misplacing your car keys is a trivial, normal event, and
the difference between that and the "first time it's a pathological
event are absolutely indistinguishable," he said. "There is a
moment where you can clearly have an overlap."
To learn about
memory loss, visit the U.S. National Institute on Aging.