I have again asked our vice president for senior services, Steve Steiber, Ph.D. to share a guest posting about some new research which studies what predicts cognitive decline. Steve has more than two decades experience in pharmaceutical and medical device consulting prior to joining CCM about ten years ago. He reports:
“Keep you r friends close, but your enemies even closer,” is advice that has most often been attributed to Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist of 6th and 5th century China. Maybe this is good advice for military matters, but researchers are finding increasing evidence that it is poor advice for mental matters. In fact having stressful friends as early as middle age is a statistical predictor of cognitive decline in later years.
Scientists at University College London report that negative interactions with others – which they characterize as “unpleasant social exchanges” – lead to declines in cognitive test scores over the ten-year period of their study. They actually measured the cognitive profiles of nearly 6,000 British civil servants over this period, and those with more negative social relationships reported even more rapid decline in their mental capabilities. Those in the top third of “negative associations” aged cognitively as much as a year more than those in the bottom third. The differences, while small, were statistically significant.
In parallel research recently reported by physicians at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, it is not just the “crabbiness” of others that can precipitate cognitive decline. These physicians were looking for leading indicators of Alzheimer’s Disease in more than 2400 patients in 34 Alzheimer’s Disease centers between 2005 and 2013. They tested patients for their functional capacity, general depression, a host of other neuropsychiatric conditions and dementia. The patients all started out “cognitively normal” on all these scales at the outset of the study.
They found that irritability, depression and disturbances in nighttime sleep patterns preceded mental decline in these patients. But it got even more granular than that. It was like following a road map with first, irritability, depression, and nighttime behavioral changes; these were followed by anxiety, appetite changes, agitation, and apathy. Last came elation and motor disturbances which were followed by hallucinations, delusions, and disinihibition. Rather startling.
What do we take away from these findings? First, we should not make any sweeping generalizations without more research to corroborate what these researchers have found. But at the very least, it suggests that if you have a loved one who is middle age or older, be aware of the people whose company they keep. It is not mentally healthy to immerse oneself or your loved one in the company of irritating people. (Maybe that is good advice for us all, regardless.) The second research suggests that we perhaps can seek professional help earlier with symptoms that may precede forgetfulness or other cognitive decline. The list is here. Take seriously the signs of melancholy or poor sleep patterns or changes in mood or appetite. And if a loved one shows consistent signs of irritability, it may be more than their impatience.
At the most general, think of these bodies of research to be not unlike the research we have always seen about diet and exercise along with not smoking. The research here, however, is not about physical health; it is mental health we can safeguard with better vigilance.
Charlotte Bishop is a Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. Please email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.