Don’t ignore residents who complain of memory problems. New research published in the Oct. 28 online issue of Neurology finds that older women who complain of memory problems may be at higher risk for experiencing diagnosed memory and thinking impairment decades later.

“Our findings, though modest, provide further evidence that memory complaints in aging deserve close attention as a possible early warning sign of future thinking and memory problems, even several years in advance,” said study author Allison Kaup, Ph.D., who is an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and is with the San Francisco VA Medical Center. The memory complaints could be an early symptom of a gradual disease process such as Alzheimer’s disease, she said.

For the study, 1,107 dementia-free women aged an average of 70 years were asked the same question several times over 18 years: “Do you feel you have more problems with memory than most?” At the end of the study, women completed tests of thinking abilities to diagnose whether they had memory or thinking impairment. Other factors—years of education, depression, hypertension, diabetes, stroke and heart disease—were considered, too.

A total of 89 women, or 8% of study participants, complained of memory problems at the start of the study. The memory complaints were enough to be noticeable to the women, Kaup said, but not significant enough to show up on a standard test. Researchers found that these women were 70% more likely to develop a diagnosis of memory or thinking impairment during the study than women who did not have any memory complaints, with 53% of those with complaints developing a diagnosis compared with 38% of those with no memory complaints.

Women who had memory complaints 10 years before the end of the study were 90% more likely to develop a diagnosis than those with no memory complaints at 10 years earlier. Women who had memory complaints four years before the end of the study were three times more likely to develop a diagnosis than women with no memory complaints four years earlier.

The study involved only European-American women, so the findings cannot be generalized to men and to other racial or ethnic groups, Kaup said.