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Poor health, lifestyle factors impact memory even among younger adults

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According to a new study by UCLA researchers and the Gallup organization, if you suffer from depression, do not exercise enough, or have health problems such as high blood pressure, you may develop memory problems even if you are a young adult. The findings were published in the June 4 edition of the journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers polled 18,552 individuals regarding their memory and a variety of lifestyle and health factors that have been previously reported to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. They found that, among all age groups, many of these risk factors increased the likelihood of self-perceived memory complaints. They note that their findings may help researchers better identify how early lifestyle and health choices may influence memory later in life. They explain that the examination of these potential relationships could also help to pinpoint interventions focused on lowering the risk of memory issues.

The study subjects ranged in age from 18 to 99 years. The researchers focused on the following known risk factors: depression, less education levels, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and smoking. They were startled by the prevalence of memory issues among younger adults, noted senior author, Dr. Gary Small, UCLA’s Parlow–Solomon Professor on Aging and director of the UCLA Longevity Center. He explained, “In this study, for the first time, we determined these risk factors may also be indicative of early memory complaints, which are often precursors to more significant memory decline later in life.”

The investigators found that depression, low levels of education, physical inactivity and high blood pressure increased the probability of memory complaints in younger adults (ages 18–39), middle-aged adults (40–59) and older adults (60–99), the researchers. Depression was the predominant single risk factor for memory complaints in all age groups. Having only one risk factor significantly increased the frequency of memory complaints, regardless of age. The memory problems increased when the number of risk factors increased. Overall, 20% of respondents had memory complaints, including 14% of younger adults, 22% of middle-aged adults, and 26% of seniors.

The investigators found that, in general, memory issues in younger individuals may be different from those that affect seniors. They noted that for younger adults, stress may play more of a role, and the wealth of technology present in today’s society, including the Internet and wireless devices that can often result in constant multi-tasking, may impact younger adult’s attention span; thus, making it harder to focus and remember.

Dr. Small noted that previous studies have shown that education is a key element of “cognitive reserve,” which is the ability to compensate for progressive brain pathology. The study findings suggest that pursuing educational activities at any stage of life may be helpful. “We hope that our findings will raise awareness among researchers, health care providers and the general public about the importance of lowering these risk factors at any age, such as getting screened and treated for depression and high blood pressure, exercising more and furthering one’s education,” explained Dr. Stephen Chen, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute and the first author of the study. “We’re planning to use these results as a basis for future studies to better understand how reducing these risk factors may possibly lower the frequency of memory complaints,” added author Fernando Torres-Gil, a professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and associate director of UCLA’s Longevity Center.

The Gallup poll used in the study was conducted between December 2011 and January 2012 and was part of the Gallup–Healthways Well-Being Index, which includes health- and lifestyle-related polling questions. The pollsters conducted land-line and cell phone interviews that entailed a representative 90% of the US population.