If older people score less well on a memory test in comparison to their peers of the same age and with the same level of education, then they may be given the diagnosis ‘mild cognitive impairment’ (MCI). In half of the cases of older people with MCI, their memory problems worsen and after a few years, they develop Alzheimer’s disease. Their memories are then affected to such an extent that they can no longer live independently.
Planning less well
Researchers affiliated with the Alzheimer Center Groningen asked older people who had performed less well on a memory test and who had been diagnosed with MCI to complete a test measuring planning capabilities. In this test, the participants had to think using foresight and they had to decide how many steps would need to be taken from a starting situation to reach the end goal. Older people between the ages of 60 and 80 years old with memory problems were compared with older people of the same age and with the same level of education who did not have memory problems. The older people with memory problems made more mistakes in the planning test. Planning capabilities and the ability to think using foresight is an important function of the frontal cortex; this is the part of the brain located in our forehead.
Less mental flexibility
Older people with memory problems also scored less well on another test for functions carried out by the frontal cortex, such as mental flexibility. Functions such as these are very important in daily life, for example to plan what you will do on a given day or, if you are going to cook something, to think about the order that should be followed when preparing the meal.
Limiting memory deterioration
The researchers concluded that it is important to not limit research to only the memory of older people with symptoms of forgetfulness or with concentration problems. There are indications that cognitive training can somewhat inhibit memory deterioration. To this end, exercises are done to improve the working memory. ‘To strengthen the beneficial effects of cognitive training, we are now conducting a study on mild electrical brain stimulation during the training, to see whether we can improve the function of this brain network,’ explains Dr Branislava Ćurčić-Blake, initiator of the new study entitled ‘Cogmax’. More information about this new study can be found on www.cogmax.nl.