Health Team

Duke study shows age does not necessarily lead to memory decline

Posted September 29, 2011 6:15 p.m. EDT
Updated October 5, 2011 11:17 a.m. EDT

— Researchers at Duke University are studying how people age to determine how much forgetfulness can be chalked up to old age and when cognitive decline should ring a warning bell.

Haywood Holderness, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, and his wife Mary are participants in the study. He says after 32 years in the ministry, he worried that it was time to turn over the position to a younger person.

"I really loved being able to call the children by their names," he said. "It got so that it was difficult to remember the children's names and I said, 'They need a younger pastor.'"

Kathleen Hayden, in Duke's Department of Psychiatry, said the study include 1,000 people who work in religious orders. Participants agreed to annual memory evaluations and to donate their brains when they died. Researchers hope to find out what is normal cognitive decline and what represents a more serious issue.

"The finding that's really optimistic here is that most of the sample didn't decline over time," Hayden said.

Hayden said some had moderate decline, others suffered significant decline and others had signs of Alzheimers, a disease Holderness saw his father deal with. 

"It's a very gut-wrenching experience to watch your parent go through something like this," he said.

The study offer him good news. He fell within the normal range of memory for his age.

There are many reasons why people suffer some memory loss and not all of them are linked to age. Different medications, a vitamin deficiency or even depression can affect the memory. A doctor is the best person to gauge whether forgetfulness is cased by aging or some other factor.