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Mental Skills Can Decline Years Before Dying
Date:8/27/2008

Study of seniors found it's not all part of normal aging process

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 27 (HealthDay News) -- In their golden years, men and women who remain free of dementia will nonetheless undergo an accelerated drop in key mental skills as much as 15 years before their death, a new study reveals.

Verbal ability, spatial reasoning and perceptual speed are the specific victims of this cognitive decline, which is not, the researchers stressed, a routine part of the aging process.

Instead, this so-called "terminal decline phase" preceding death appears to be the slowly unfolding product of several underlying factors, perhaps including early heart disease, insufficient physical and mental exercise, or even dementia that is so nascent as to be undetectable.

"Before we conducted these analyses, we knew, based on evidence from previous studies, that we might expect acceleration in decline on cognitive abilities before death," said study author Valgeir Thorvaldsson, from the department of psychology at Goteborg University, in Sweden. "[And] our findings clearly showed there to be a pattern of terminal decline, even among relatively healthy individuals, that the brain changes that influence our cognitive abilities in old age occur over a relatively long period of time, even among individuals who remain non-demented until they die."

Thorvaldsson and his colleagues discussed their work in the Aug. 27 online issue of Neurology.

The researchers uncovered evidence of a non-dementia-related dip in mental acuity by tracking the mental skills of 288 Goteberg residents from the age of 70 to their death --which occurred, on average, by age 84.

Over a 30-year period, each male and female participant underwent a maximum of 12 mental health tests, while continuously being evaluated for the possible onset of dementia.

The Swedish team concluded that elderly mental skills do indeed begin to dete
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