Accelerated long-term forgetting in healthy older adults predicts cognitive decline over one year

Alfie R Wearn*, Esther Saunders-Jennings, Volkan Nurdal, Emma Hadley, Michael J Knight, Margaret A Newson, Risto A Kauppinen, E J Coulthard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

40 Downloads (Pure)



Here, we address a pivotal factor in Alzheimer’s prevention—identifying those at risk early, when dementia can still be avoided. Recent research highlights an accelerated forgetting phenotype as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. We hypothesized that delayed recall over 4 weeks would predict cognitive decline over 1 year better than 30-min delayed recall, the current gold standard for detecting episodic memory problems which could be an early clinical manifestation of incipient Alzheimer’s disease. We also expected hippocampal subfield volumes to improve predictive accuracy.


Forty-six cognitively healthy older people (mean age 70.7 ± 7.97, 21/46 female), recruited from databases such as Join Dementia Research, or a local database of volunteers, performed 3 memory tasks on which delayed recall was tested after 30 min and 4 weeks, as well as Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination III (ACE-III) and CANTAB Paired Associates Learning. Medial temporal lobe subregion volumes were automatically measured using high-resolution 3T MRI. The ACE-III was repeated after 12 months to assess the change in cognitive ability. We used univariate linear regressions and ROC curves to assess the ability of tests of delayed recall to predict cognitive decline on ACE-III over the 12 months.


Fifteen of the 46 participants declined over the year (≥ 3 points lost on ACE-III). Four-week verbal memory predicted cognitive decline in healthy older people better than clinical gold standard memory tests and hippocampal MRI. The best single-test predictor of cognitive decline was the 4-week delayed recall on the world list (R2 = .123, p = .018, β = .418). Combined with hippocampal subfield volumetry, 4-week verbal recall identifies those at risk of cognitive decline with 93% sensitivity and 86% specificity (AUC = .918, p < .0001).


We show that a test of accelerated long-term forgetting over 4 weeks can predict cognitive decline in healthy older people where traditional tests of delayed recall cannot. Accelerated long-term forgetting is a sensitive, easy-to-test predictor of cognitive decline in healthy older people. Used alone or with hippocampal MRI, accelerated forgetting probes functionally relevant Alzheimer’s-related change. Accelerated forgetting will identify early-stage impairment, helping to target more invasive and expensive molecular biomarker testing.

Original languageEnglish
Article number119 (2020)
Number of pages9
JournalAlzheimer's Research and Therapy
Early online date28 Sep 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 28 Sep 2020

Structured keywords

  • Cognitive Science
  • Memory


  • Long-term memory
  • MRI
  • hippocampus
  • medial temporal lobe
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • Early diagnosis


Dive into the research topics of 'Accelerated long-term forgetting in healthy older adults predicts cognitive decline over one year'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this