Mental Abilities Weaken Long Before Death, Despite Absence of Dementia

A new study finds that a decline in older people’s’ mental abilities starts years before death, even if they do not have dementia.

“These changes are different and separate from the changes in thinking skills that occur as people get older,” said study author Valgeir Thorvaldsson, MSc, of Göteberg University in Sweden. “We found accelerated changes in people’s mental skills that indicated a terminal decline phase years before death.”

Perceptual speed starts deteriorating some 15 years before death, spatial ability starts failing nearly 8 years before death, and verbal ability about 6.5 years before death. These findings came out of a study using 288 people without dementia, who were monitored from age 70 to death, with an average age at death of 84. Their mental skills were checked up to 12 times over a 30-year period, to ensure they did not have dementia.

Said Thorvaldsson: “Cardiovascular conditions such as heart disease or dementia that is too early to be detected could be factors,” he said. “Increased health problems and frailty in old age often lead to inactivity, and this lack of exercise and mental stimulation could accelerate mental decline.”

Thorvaldsson also noted that verbal abilities declined sharply in the terminal phase and did not decline significantly due to age only. “This indicates that people remain stable in their verbal abilities unless they are experiencing disease processes that also increase their mortality risk,” he said. “A change in verbal ability might therefore be considered a critical marker for degeneration in health in older people.”

Source: Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, August 27, 2008, online edition.

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