Many older adults (65 years and older) express concern about mild cognitive problems – “senior moments” – such as finding the right word, remembering a name, or forgetfulness. Although family members and their doctors may view the senior moment as benign, that is not always the case. Affected individuals may experience emotional distress because they are aware of decline in mental sharpness; they might limit their driving or financial management to avoid making mistakes; or they worry their self-perceived memory loss might predict dementia.
Age-related cognitive decline is a subtle reduction in cognitive abilities and usually does not affect one’s ability to live independently or engage in life. One-quarter to one-half of community-dwelling older adults report subjective cognitive complaints, such as forgetfulness and word-finding difficulties. Because gradual cognitive decline is challenging to diagnose and differentiate using standardized testing methods, the complaints can remain subjective.
Research on the relationship between subjective memory complaints and risk of future cognitive decline (e.g. mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease) is mixed. However, according to studies, subjective memory complaints are consistently related to depression and some personality traits, e.g. neuroticism. Also, depressive symptoms decrease the accuracy of patient’s reported cognitive impairment.
There are strategies to improve memory and maintain cognitive vitality. The most widely accepted intervention is neuroplasticity-based (doing brain exercises and brain games). The basis for these exercises is the notion that the brain can adapt, heal, and renew itself after trauma, and even compensate for a disability.
Brain exercises can help with speed, attention, memory, problem solving and flexibility. An overall strategy to improve cognitive function includes using mnemonics to make associations for information, practicing information you want to remember, being patient with oneself, physical exercise and a good diet including fruits, vegetables, tree nuts and omega-3 fatty acids.
Many researchers are now turning to Chinese medicine for identifying potential neuroprotective agents. Huperizine A is an alkaloid isolated from Huperzia serrata which is documented as an anti-inflammatory herb for relieving pain and alleviating swelling after trauma. According to this theory, Huperzia serratahelps remove heat and has detoxification effects.
Clinical trials demonstrate that huperizine A significantly improves cognitive functions in Alzheimer patients. Current Alzheimer treatments rely heavily on the use of acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors (donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine). AChE inhibitors slow down the degradation of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, thereby increasing its bioavailability. The anti-AChE activity of huperzine A is the basis for its use to treat dementia patients. Studies find that huperizine A is comparable to donepezil and rivastigmine in terms of anti-AChE activity.
In summary, patients with age-related cognitive impairment often worry that their perceived decline could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease. Such people need reassurance and support. Positive steps can be taken to slow the decline, such as leading a healthful lifestyle, regular exercise, learning new things and increasing intake of select supplements.
Dr. Mark Lange, Ph.D., is the Science Director for the Institute for Nutraceutical Advancement and has more than 15 years experience in the nutraceutical, health care and pharmaceutical research and management. Dr. Lange has earned a national reputation in the nutraceutical field for Quality Control policies and analytical testing methods and standards.