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Verbal Memory Preserved in Healthy Aging, Study Finds

April 9, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ A study of healthy, well-educated elderly men found verbal memory well preserved into old age, according to a researcher who says some complaints of memory loss by old people may be unfounded.

The study did find declines in ″visuospatial″ memory, which involves place-related facts such as where one put one’s keys, said Dr. Elisabeth Koss of the National Institute on Aging.

But the preservation of verbal memory, which includes recall for names and stories, is ″a very optimistic finding,″ she said Wednesday.

Koss, who compared memory test results among 60 healthy and college- educated men aged 25 to 85, spoke to a press conference Wednesday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.

She said some complaints by old people of poor memory may stem from their belief that old people are supposed to have memory problems. In addition, people concerned about memory impairment may be more sensitive to occasional lapses that would not bother a younger person, she said.

Genuine memory impairment can result from medical conditions such as high blood pressure rather than age itself, she said.

Participants in her study were screened to make sure they had no psychological or medical condition that might interfere with intellectual functioning.

In an interview Thursday, another researcher said the study confirms other observations about healthy, well-educated elderly people.

They ″do have much better chance of surviving into late life without any particular intellectual losses,″ said Dr. Ewald Busse, dean emeritus of the Duke University School of Medicine and and expert in aging aspects of brain and behavior.

In the new study, older men scored just as well in tests of verbal memory as younger men. That kind of memory includes recalling names, stories and the previous day’s events, comprehending and defining words and speaking eloquently, Koss said.

The declines found in visuospatial memory were not severe enough to interfere with daily occupational or social activities, said R.P. Friedland, a co-author of the study. He also stressed the declines were fundamentally different from the impediments of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

″While the older person may forget where he put his keys ... the person with dementia will be the one who forgets he has keys,″ Friedland said.

Of the 60 volunteers in the study, 18 were younger than 34, 16 were between the ages of 36 and 54, 14 were between the ages of 54 and 69, and 12 were 70 or older.

Verbal memory was checked through such tests as telling the person a story and then asking him to repeat it with as much detail as possible, both right away and about 20 minutes later.

In another test, each man was told a list of 10 words and asked to repeat it. Most people cannot recall all 10, so the forgotten words are then reviewed, and the person asked again to repeat the entire list. The exercise tests short-term and long-term verbal memory, Koss said.

One visuospatial test included asking each man to arrange a series of pictures in a logical order. Koss said her results showed no age-related decline in this ability until age 70.

Another test showed a progressive, age-related decline that affected even the youngest men in the study, she said. In that exercise, the men were given a list of numbers paired with symbols, then a series of numbers. They had to fill in the corresponding symbol for each number, while being allowed to look back to the reference list.

The test is more one of speed than memory, Koss said.

Koss said she plans to do a memory study of elderly women.

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