Common infections can hurt your memory—even if they don't make you ill

Study finds decline in abstract thinking, reasoning

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Exposure to common infections—even if they do not develop into an illness—may contribute to a decline in reasoning, planning, and memory, according to new research presented at the American Stroke Association's annual conference.

For the study, Columbia University researchers studied blood samples and brain functions of 588 adults who took part in the Northern Manhattan Study, which examined stroke risk factors in the New York City neighborhood. Researchers studied infections that lead to pneumonia, bronchitis, stomach ulcers, cold sores, and herpes. Half of the adults repeated the tests after a five-year interval.

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Researchers found a link between exposure to common infections—measured by antibody levels—and a decline in cognitive functions—such as planning, reasoning, memory, and abstract thinking—and a slowing of mental processing. Moreover, researchers found a link between exposure and an increased risk of stroke, inflammation, and clogged arteries.

"It could be caused by an immune system response to the infections or the infection itself could result in clinical damage that we're not aware of," says lead author Clinton Wright, adding that the effects of such exposure could take years to impair cognition.

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Wright says he began the study after reading research linking infections with an increased risk of stroke and Alzheimer's disease. He added that more research is needed to confirm the link.

"It would be great if treatment prevented these bad outcomes, but we're very far away from having that type of evidence," Wright says (Paddock, Medical News Today, 2/14; Philadelphia Inquirer/HealthDay, 2/13).

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