A new research paper suggests falls and balance problems may be early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease.
Falls are typically associated with late stage Alzheimer’s or dementia. But investigators found that study participants with brain changes suggestive of early Alzheimer’s disease were more likely to fall than those whose brains did not show the same changes.
“If you meet these people on the street, they appear healthy and have no obvious cognitive problems,” said lead author Susan Stark, Ph.D. “But they have changes in their brain that look similar to Alzheimer’s disease, and they have twice the typical annual rate of falls for their age group.”
Stark and her colleagues recruited 119 volunteers from studies of aging and health at Washington University’s Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. All the participants were 65 or older and cognitively normal.
Researchers performed brain scans on all participants. Fifteen percent (18 individuals) of the participants had high levels of beta amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
The other 101 volunteers had normal beta amyloid levels in the brain.
Study participants were given a journal and asked to note any falls. When they did so, the researchers followed up with a questionnaire and a phone interview about the falls.
During the phone interview, researchers were able to obtain additional information to compare and contrast the nature of the falls.
Normally, about one in three adults age 65 or older typically fall each year. But in the 18 participants with high beta amyloid levels in the brain, two-thirds fell within the first eight months of the study.
High levels of beta amyloid in the brain were the best predictor of an increased risk of falls.
“Falls are a serious health concern for older adults,” Stark said. “Our study points to the notion that we may need to consider preclinical Alzheimer’s disease as a potential cause.”