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Weight loss could signal risk of Alzheimer's

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Seniors with unexplained weight loss may be at high risk of developing Alzheimer's, a study suggests today.

Researcher David Bennett of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago knew that people who already have Alzheimer's often lose weight, perhaps because they're unable to shop for or prepare their own meals.

The study in today's issue of Neurology suggests the disease might attack brain regions that control weight years before the disease can be diagnosed.

The Chicago team recruited 820 healthy Catholic nuns, brothers and priests. All were 65 or older and had been participating in the Religious Orders Study, an ongoing study on aging and Alzheimer's.

The researchers calculated each person's body mass index, a formula that takes into account a person's height and weight.

Over the course of the 11-year-study, 151 people developed Alzheimer's, a disease that causes forgetfulness, confusion and behavioral changes.

People who had lost approximately one unit of body mass index a year had a 35% greater risk of developing Alzheimer's, the team found. The weight loss was not explained by dieting or other reasons.

For example, a 5-foot-tall study participant who weighed 120 pounds and who lost 5 pounds a year would run that elevated risk, says Dallas Anderson of the National Institute on Aging, which helped pay for the study.

The greater the weight loss, the higher the risk of Alzheimer's, the research showed. An earlier study suggested that weight loss occurs several years before the symptoms of memory loss show up, Anderson says.

Bennett speculates that the weight loss is not related to confusion or dementia because the Catholic nuns, priests and brothers all lived in convents or monasteries and didn't have to cook their own meals. Instead, he says, the weight loss could be the result of damage to parts of the brain that help regulate body weight.

This study suggests that seniors who have lost weight and who have no other sign of illness should be monitored for memory loss, says Sam Gandy, a spokesman for the Alzheimer's Association.

Identifying Alzheimer's early on increasingly will become more important, Gandy says. He believes that experimental drugs might soon be available to slow the disease.

Such drugs do not yet exist, but Gandy says at-risk seniors should take charge of their affairs now before any sign of possible dementia takes hold. Alzheimer's afflicts 4.5 million people in the USA.

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