Health factors that have been shown to increase the risk of brain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and dementia have now been found to increase the likelihood of memory complaints across all adult age groups, including young adults between the ages of 18-39.
There have been many studies carried out previously that have found a connection between health problems and cognitive functioning, our ability to process thoughts. In the past few months, Medical News Today has reported on research connecting artery narrowing with memory problems, as well as a study that suggested thinking skills are best in those who had better cardiovascular fitness in their youth.
A new study, carried out by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and published in the journal PLOS ONE, claims to be the first to determine that these risk factors may be indicative of early memory complaints.
Researchers polled 18,552 individuals aged 18 to 99 about their memory and a variety of lifestyle and health factors. They used telephone and cellphone interviews, capturing a representative 90% of the US population, focusing on factors known to increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, such as depression, diabetes, lower education levels, obesity and smoking.
The study found that many of these risk factors increased the chances of self-perceived memory complaints, but most importantly that this was the case across all adult age groups. Of those polled, 20% were found to have memory complaints; this included 14% of young adults, 22% of middle-aged adults (ages 40-59) and 26% of older adults (ages 60-99).
Just one risk factor significantly increases frequency of memory complaints
The risk factors found to increase the likelihood of memory complaints were depression, low levels of education, physical inactivity and high blood pressure. Across all age groups, the strongest single risk factor for memory complaints was depression.
Dr. Gary Small, UCLA's Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging and director of the UCLA Longevity Center, was the study's senior author and was surprised by how prevalent memory issues were among young adults.
He also noted that previous studies, such as one published earlier this year investigating recovery from traumatic brain injury, have shown that education is a key element of "cognitive reserve" - how the brain is able to function with regards to damage it has suffered.
His team's new research suggests that the pursuit of educational activities can have a beneficial effect at any age.
One potential limitation with the study's findings was that the researchers noted that young adults might suffer from different memory issues to those afflicting older individuals.
They identified that stress and multi-tasking brought on by the continual presence of technology (the Internet and wireless devices) could have a greater impact on the attention spans of young adults, making it more difficult for them to focus and remember things.
The researchers hoped that their findings would raise awareness about the importance of reducing these risk factors at any age. Dr. Stephen Chen, first author of the study and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute, suggests screening and treatment for depression and high blood pressure, increased exercise, and furthering one's education as ways in which the risk factors could be lowered.
Following on from these findings, author Fernando Torres-Gil, a professor at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs and associate director of UCLA's Longevity Center, outlines what the next step will be:
"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."
For now, this research from UCLA has emphasized the importance of a healthy lifestyle, and it suggests that the general public can begin to look after their minds from an early age by looking after their bodies.