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Memory check: NZ's first big study of memory loss reveals good news

Graeme Newton with wife Jay.

There’s good news for many patients after the first two years of results in the country’s most intensive study of memory loss and pre-dementia. Donna Chisholm reports.

North & South readers first met North Shore retiree Graeme Newton in 2017, when he became one of the first patients enrolled in a national study of people with mild cognitive impairment.

Newton had gone to the doctor about his memory after folding his dirty laundry and packing it in a yellow council rubbish bag instead of the washing machine alongside.

We’ve been following his progress and now, after his second battery of tests at the Dementia Prevention Research Clinic in Auckland, Newton’s been told his condition is stable – despite his concerns that his day-to-day memory is getting worse.

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Of around 100 people who have completed two annual assessments since the clinic opened in April 2016, fewer than five have deteriorated from a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers hope to recruit 400 patients nationally before the study concludes.

It’s encouraging news, but Newton, 76, remains convinced his memory is failing and that he’s simply getting better at doing the repeated tests.

Neuropsychologist Dr Christina Ilse says there’s some evidence in the literature of a “practice effect” on results, and researchers here have had “multiple debates” over what to do about it – but if Newton was showing a true decline, the same measures would pick that up.

“When people develop an actual dementia, no matter how familiar they are with something, they will do worse on the test because their brain’s ability to encode the information reduces. If Graeme was experiencing a true decline, he would find the tasks difficult.”

If the measures are changed to avoid repetition, Ilse says, “we might end up comparing apples and pears, rather than apples with apples”.

Newton says if his cognitive function was a 10/10 a few years ago, he now rates it at no more than a six or seven. He frequently forgets the names of people he knows well, even family members, and he finds it difficult to multitask.

“If Jay [his wife] asks me to put away one thing in the cupboard and bring back something else, I’ll come back with both. That happens a lot.” He’s also less able to handle problems that arise with his computer.

Last year, at the suggestion of his GP, he began taking antidepressants, because of the stress and mood changes brought on by his memory loss. The pills have been a significant help, he says.

“They make me feel much more relaxed – it has been a very positive thing.” The medication helped him cope with a couple of stressful situations this year and last, when Jay’s femur was fractured during a partial knee replacement, and her bank account was hit by scammers.

Newton says he’s still working hard to ward off further decline by keeping himself physically and mentally active. He plays petanque and badminton, and regularly attempts Sudoku and word puzzles. And while he no longer tackles novels because he forgets what he’s previously read, he still reads short stories and magazines. 

• In August, Newton featured on Nigel Latta’s TV series, A Curious Mind (available on demand at tvnz.co.nz).

This story was first published in the December edition of North & South.