Clever Apes: A new tangle in our thinking about memory

September 15, 2010

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The ol' memory banks tend to slip a little as we get older. No surprise there. It's so common that scientists have long believed some memory loss is just a normal part of aging -- perhaps even pre-programmed into our brains' lifecycle. 

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But new research from Rush University Medical Center suggests something different -- that even mild cognitive decline seems to be connected to full-blown dementia. Rush's Robert Wilson led a project as part of the Religious Orders Study examining 354 brains that came from Catholic nuns, monks and priests. They found that gradual memory loss was closely associated with so-called tau tangles in the brain -- one of the pathologies that characterize Alzheimer's disease. Here's our news story on the finding, and above is an extended interview with Wilson.

How you take the findings depends a lot on how you think about these issues connected with decline, dementia and death. Some people might be alarmed by it: that mild forgetfulness that I'm experiencing may actually be an early sign of Alzheimer's. Yikes! On the other hand, this could be good news. For one, it means that any future therapies that are effective against Alzheimer's might also be able to head off the low-grade memory loss once thought to be an unavoidable part of aging. And furthermore, by potentially helping to diagnose Alzheimer's earlier, this research may get us a step closer to identifying those therapies or drugs or whatever. On a related note, some people seem to be immune to the formation of those nasty tangles, and others form fewer or are less affected by them. Some portion of those people not only escape dementia, but manage to stay extremely sharp well into their 80s and 90s.

These "Super Agers" raise questions about why it is that people age, what it means to age well, and what lessons might be drawn from such highly successful old folks? Those, in turn, are the questions that we'll tackle in the next Clever Apes: The March of Time! That installment is coming your way on Monday, September 27th. So set your podcast-o-meters now  and tune in, too.

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