Posted on Sep 11, 2013 by Michael Loftus
Memory failure is unfortunately one of the many symptoms of growing older and is a fairly typical occurrence. However, people often worry once their memory starts to fail as it has traditionally been believed in the medical world that frequent memory failure might be the first step in the development of a major degenerative disease such as Alzheimer's.
Recently, more evidence is pointing towards the fact that memory loss could be related to an entirely separate condition termed ‘age related memory loss’. Furthermore, recent research has even suggested that this is a condition which could be reversed.
The assumption that some memory loss is an inevitable consequence of ageing is not wholly true, but it is important to be able to distinguish between a degree of forgetfulness and other problems which may be the indicators of more significant emerging problems.
Ageing does bring with it some physiological changes that can result in the brain not working as smoothly and predictably as we would expect. Information can take longer to process and to retrieve and this slight slowing down might be mistaken for true memory loss - but often, with a little time, things are recalled as required.
As with the other more obvious physical issues that accompany aging, such as muscle tone and skin elasticity, the real challenge with the brain as we grow older is to appreciate that it is very much a matter of ‘ use it or lose it’. The health of the brain reflects a range of factors including lifestyle, overall attention to well being and other regular activities. Even as one grows older, there are many things that can be done which will maintain brain capacity, avoid memory loss and keep cells in good order.
Furthermore, the normal ageing process tends not to impact those abilities needed for activities that an individual has always done and which they continue to do, nor do people lose common sense or the ability to think and debate logically and rationally. Occasional misplacing of things, names or appointments are not necessarily considered indicators of some inevitable decline of ones brain power. However, a loss of familiar simple skills – dressing oneself; getting lost or disorientated in familiar places or a deterioration in judgement and decision making are signs that need to be investigated more closely.
The process of age-related memory loss arises when the hippocampus (the part of the brain which is responsible for the formation and retrieval of memories) deteriorates and the chemical processes that prevent damage to brain cells, undertake repairs and stimulate growth become less efficient with age.
In addition, decreased blood flow to the brain is also a common occurrence as we get older and this can impact on memory and produce some failing in cognitive skills as well as affect the brain's ability to absorb vital nutrients.
Recent research undertaken at the Columbia University Medical Centre in New York– using mice as key test animals at this stage – has looked much more closely at the precise chemistry of age related memory loss and has suggested that low levels of a particular protein in the brain may be at least part of the cause of this process of memory loss.
The research began with the careful study of human brains donated for the express purpose of medical research. These brains came from people whose ages ranged from 22 to 18. Researchers were able to identify about 17 genes which activity seemed to be related to age, one of which was involved in the production of the protein RbAp48 which also seemed to be age related in its activity.
The next phase of the test built from this and used young mice which had been bred using genetic engineering techniques to have a reduced level of RbAp48 and which were found to perform as badly on memory tests as the older mice did. When a virus was used to increase the presence of the protein in older mice however, they were seen to have an improvement in the memory test.
There is no certainty of course that adjusting RbAp48 in the complex human brain will have a similar effect as it did on mice, or if it is even possible to look to modify these levels safely.
However, the fact that the research has suggested that this specific protein may be a significant factor in age related memory loss, and that such memory loss can be related to some functional neuron change enables researchers to distinguishes the condition from Alzheimer's (where there is no neuron component).
The Alzheimer's Society in the UK has noted that the research is making some steps in distinguishing Alzheimer's from age related memory loss which has previously been problematic in clinical terms.