Autistic people more at risk of losing key memory abilities

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People with autistic traits may have an increased risk of developing problems with their memory, planning, and problem-solving as they get older, research led by Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.

Little is known about the impact of ageing on people with autism, partly because the classification and diagnosis of autism has changed so much over the decades.

To try and tease apart age-related declines in cognitive abilities from the influence of autism the researchers focused on people with the Broad Autism Phenotype (BAP). People with the BAP have mild forms of the traits associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and are often considered a bridge between people with ASD and people who do not display autistic traits.

In a pilot study the researchers looked at 20 people over 60 with the BAP and compared their cognitive performance with a control group of 20 typical over-60s. They found that 82% of the typical adults scored higher than the average score for people with BAP across three measures of executive function – our ability to switch between tasks or keep information in mind while updating it.

A report of the research is published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Dr Rebecca Charlton, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths and co-author of the study, said: “The lack of overlap between people with and without the Broad Autism Phenotype is striking and suggests a real difference in these important cognitive abilities after accounting for the influence of other factors such as IQ and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“While this is only a pilot study it suggests that, for older people, autistic traits come with an additional risk factor for developing problems with abilities such as working memory that help us deal with everyday situations. We hope to investigate further to understand these risks and see how we could identify those who could benefit from targeted support.”

The researchers say that, as well as expanding the size of the group studied, an important next step will be to extend this research to include neuroimaging to identify neural markers of aging-related differences associated with the BAP.

A report of the research, entitled ‘Aging with Elevated Autistic Traits: Cognitive Functioning Among Older Adults with the Broad Autism Phenotype’, is published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Image: old man and his bags by Diego Torres Silvestre via Flickr.