Forgetting the start of a story may be a sign of dementia

·3 min read
Forgetting stories may signal dementia -  Getty Images Contributor
Forgetting stories may signal dementia - Getty Images Contributor

Forgetting the start of a story could be an early sign of dementia, according to UK experts. Scientists found that delayed recall of information from stories could be associated with higher levels of protein in the brain called amyloid beta, a key indicator of Alzheimer’s disease.

They said their findings could be an “inexpensive and accurate” way of finding dementia in people who seem asymptomatic, as issues with memory are the “canary in a coalmine” for dementia.

Dr Davide Bruno, from the School of Psychology at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) - who is the first author on the study, said: "Presence of amyloid plaques in the brain is hypothesised to kickstart neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's disease.

"While we are not sure exactly why, forgetting what we learn at the beginning tells us that Alzheimer's pathology may be settling in.

"We think it may be related to preserving information about the order of events - a fundamental feature of memory the loss of which is somewhat akin to a canary in a coalmine, so to speak."

Scientists from the Liverpool university and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, looked at data from the Wisconsin Registry of Alzheimer’s Prevention, an ongoing family history of study of the disease.

The landmark research, established in 2001, enrolled participants around their mid-50s who had a parental history of dementia.

Publishing their findings in the Journal of Neuropsychology, they tested the memory of 653 people to see whether it was easier to remember the beginning or middle of a story.

They then investigated whether a smaller sample had evidence of amyloid in the brain, to test whether this was linked to their memory performance in a common neurological test.

Dr Bruno said: "We knew that people forgetting the first things on a list were at heightened risk of dementia so we wanted to find out if it was the same for other types of memory."

They found that forgetting the start of a story was associated with higher levels of the protein in the brain. There are thought to be around 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with the number expected to increase as the population gets progressively older, and is expected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040.

The condition covers several brain disorders, including Alzheimers, which cause a loss of brain function that include memory loss, confusion and speech problems. Dame Barbara Windsor, who passed away last week, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2014.

Earlier this month deaths in the UK from dementia fell by the largest number in 20 years after overtaking heart disease and strokes as Britain's biggest cause of death.

The research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that there were over 3,000 fewer deaths from the brain disorder in 2019, compared to the 69,478 in 2018.

However the Alzheimer’s Society said it was an “unusual” result, which although is good news, may well be a “short-term blip”. Dr Bruno said: "Not all memory is the same.

Remembering a story may be easier than remembering items on a list because a story benefits from a coherent structure. "And so we were not sure whether the order in which information was learned would still have an effect in memory when recalling a story. "It turns out that it does."

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