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We've all had what we call "senior moments." Maybe we put our eyeglasses in the refrigerator. Or we picked up the phone and forgot who we were calling. Or we suddenly couldn't recall the name of an acquaintance.

People usually explain away these memory lapses with a laugh and a knowing nod to the typical symptoms of aging. But new research reveals that forgetfulness should not be considered a normal part of getting older, and in fact can be a harbinger of a much more serious condition-Alzheimer's disease.

A team at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago conducted a study of more than 350 nuns, priests, and brothers over a period of up to 13 years. The participants were given annual tests measuring cognition, and after they died their brains were examined for the telltale lesions that signify dementia.

The participants who had experienced severe memory problems did, as expected, have dementia-related lesions on their brains. But what surprised researchers was that the participants who demonstrated only mild "senior moments" had the same lesions. Those who had experienced dramatic cognitive decline during the last four or five years of life typically had only mild forgetfulness in the preceding years. Meanwhile, the participants who had never shown any memory problems during their lives had brains that were generally free of lesions.

The researchers explained that rather than being a typical sign of aging, mild memory loss actually is a precursor to full-blown Alzheimer's disease. The same toxic protein tangles and clusters in the brain that eventually cause Alzheimer's first cause a gradual loss of memory that may last for years before true dementia takes hold. In fact, Alzheimer's may begin a full decade before it's actually diagnosed.

While there currently is no treatment for Alzheimer's disease, researchers are working on finding one. And while many people might prefer not to know that their memory lapses are the first sign of something much more serious, early diagnosis of Alzheimer's may be critical should a treatment be discovered. Currently the disease affects more than 5 million Americans, almost all middle-aged and older.


Alzheimer's Association

Rush University Medical Center