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It involved 125 people, average age 74, who had normal cognition and were taking part in a federally funded study of aging. They kept journals on how often they fell, and had brain scans and spinal taps to look for various substances that can signal Alzheimer's disease.
In six months, 48 fell at least once. The risk of falling was nearly three times greater for each unit of increase in the sticky plaque that scans revealed in their brains.
"Falls are tricky" because they can be medication-related or due to dizziness from high blood pressure, a blood vessel problem or other diseases like Parkinson's, said Creighton Phelps, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging.
Falls also can cause head injury or brain trauma that leads to cognitive problems, said Laurie Ryan, who oversees some of the institute's research grants but had no role in the study. Older people who hit their heads and suffer a small tear or bleeding in the brain might seem fine but develop symptoms a month later, she said.
The bottom line: "If you see somebody who's having falls for no particular reason," the person should be evaluated for dementia, said William Thies, the Alzheimer's Association's scientific director.
The warning signs of Alzheimer's:
Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
Trouble planning or solving problems.
Difficulty completing tasks.
Confusion with time or place.
Trouble understanding images and spatial relationships.
New problems with speaking or writing words.
Misplacing things and inability to retrace steps.
Decreased or poor judgment.
Changes in mood or personality.
National Institute on Aging:
Alzheimer's Association: http://www.alz.org/
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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