Rapid Cognitive Decline Near Life’s End

Friday, April 20th, 2012 by American Senior Fitness Association   View This Issue of Experience!

Researchers have long pondered this common phenomenon: when the decline in mental functioning speeds up dramatically during the last two or three years before an elderly person dies. It is still unclear whether this is caused by Alzheimer’s disease, aging itself, or the dying process. However, recent research led by Robert Wilson of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago is casting some light on the subject.

The work, published online in Neurology, included an analysis of the lives of 174 priests and nuns who became medical research subjects in 1997. On the average, at about two-and-a-half years prior to death, their memory and thinking capabilities slumped at rates eight to 17 times faster than before that end-of-life stage.

Researchers ascertained that whereas Alzheimer’s may spur cognitive decline earlier during the aging process, other factors appear to come into play causing more rapid loss during those years just preceding death. Since the deterioration during this phase involves several aspects of brain functioning — not just memory — scientists reason that more than one disease is behind it.

On a brighter note, related research published simultaneously suggested that activities such as socializing, playing bridge, reading, working crossword puzzles, and playing board games might help to protect the brain from declining during advanced age. The researchers hope to pursue further study in both areas.

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