In recent years there has been a substantial increase in research examining the role of subjective memory complaints (SMC) in cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease. These studies have related SMC to many different cognitive outcomes, such as retaining normal cognitive function, a fluctuating cognitive performance and the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Most of these studies have focused on older populations and have employed a limited assessment of cognitive function. This limits the available evidence regarding the clinical utility of SMC. The literature on the role of SMC in younger subjects is scarce. It is not known whether memory complaints are useful in predicting future cases of Alzheimer’s disease in younger community-based subjects.
Aims: The main aim of the present study was to determine whether SMC predict the development of cognitive impairment in a younger cohort of subjects, many of whom were under the age of 70 years (73%), based on their risk profile and neuropsychological assessment. A further aim was to ascertain whether the DRS or 7MS are sensitive screening tools for MCI and examine whether the presence of SMC affects the 3-year cognitive outcome of subjects.
To address these aims, this study consisted of two parts: a cross-sectional design and a longitudinal follow-up component.
Methods: This study was carried out with 86 community-dwelling subjects recruited via advertisement within the catchment area of Central Sydney Area Health Service. The mean age of the subjects was 63.1 years (SD=8.4). Subjective memory complaints were assessed using a single question. Cognitive function was assessed using a comprehensive battery of tests, selected on the basis of their sensitivity to identifying cognitive impairment typically associated with Alzheimer’s disease. After the initial analysis between those with SMC and without SMC, subjects were further classified according to their performance on an episodic memory task (i.e., delayed verbal recall, Rey, 1964) as having normal memory function, SMC or aMCI.
Results: Part 1 - Subjective memory complaints (SMC) were reported by 63% of the sample. The initial analysis between subjects with SMC (n=54) and without SMC (n=32) suggested an initial relationship between SMC and cognitive functioning. Subjects with SMC had impaired global cognitive functioning on two brief screening tests (7MS and DRS), working memory, verbal recall and visuomotor speed.
However, subsequent screening with the delayed verbal recall test showed that 12 of the 54 subjects with SMC demonstrated significant cognitive impairment, scoring 2 SD below the control group mean. After these subjects were removed to form the aMCI group, the cognitive differences between subjects with SMC and without SMC were no longer apparent. Subjects with aMCI showed evidence of multiple cognitive deficits (below 1 SD of control group mean) with a high percentage of subjects demonstrating impairment on tests of verbal learning, verbal recall, verbal ability and visuomotor speed.
Further analysis showed a significant association between age and subjects identified as having SMC (r=-.581, p<.001) and aMCI (r=.692, p<.001). From the age of 60 onwards, both the SMC and aMCI groups demonstrated a more rapid cognitive decline with increasing age in several cognitive domains.
Part 2 -
After a mean interval of 3.2 years, 43 subjects were followed up. Subjects with aMCI showed evidence of greater decline on both screening tests (7MS; DRS), whilst the SMC group had significantly higher scores. This trend was also apparent with other neuropsychological testing. The analysis of change over time in cognitive function showed that the majority of subjects (both SMC aMCI) either remained stable or improved their cognitive performance. It is likely that the small sample size and short follow-up interval of the present study contributed to the present observation of no change in cognitive function over time.
Discussion: The present findings suggest that subjective memory complaints are a poor predictor of cognitive function. In isolation, SMC are unlikely to be useful for identifying cases with significant cognitive impairment. This is particularly relevant for subjects under the age of 70 years. However, for subjects over the age of 70 years, SMC are likely to identify significant cases with neuropsychological assessment (such as animal fluency and delayed recall).
Conclusion: The present study showed that SMC are a poor predictor of cognitive function in subjects under the age of 70 years. This study provided evidence that selected and relatively quick to administer formal neuropsychological tests of cognitive function (in particular tests of animal fluency and delayed recall) are better able to identify those at risk of developing cognitive impairment associated with Alzheimer’s disease, at an earlier age. This would thus allow exposure to earlier treatment options, such as donepezil, aricept, vitamin E, and memantine”.