Background: Subjective memory complaints (SMC) are common but their significance is still unclear. It has been suggested they are a precursor of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia and an early indicator of cognitive decline. Vascular risk factors have an important role in the development of dementia and possibly MCI. We therefore aimed to test the hypothesis that vascular risk factors were associated with SMC, independent of psychological distress, in a middle-aged community-dwelling population.
Methods: A cross-sectional analysis of baseline data from the 45 and Up Study was performed. This is a cohort study of people living in New South Wales (Australia), and we explored the sample of 45, 532 participants aged between 45 and 64 years. SMC were defined as 'fair' or 'poor' on a self-reported five-point Likert scale of memory function. Vascular risk factors of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia and smoking were identified by self-report. Psychological distress was measured by the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale. We tested the model generated from a randomly selected exploratory sample (n = 22, 766) with a confirmatory sample of equal size.
Results: 5, 479/45, 532 (12%) of respondents reported SMC. Using multivariate logistic regression, only two vascular risk factors: smoking (OR 1.18; 95% CI = 1.03 - 1.35) and hypercholesterolaemia (OR 1.19; 95% CI = 1.04 - 1.36) showed a small independent association with SMC. In contrast psychological distress was strongly associated with SMC. Those with the highest levels of psychological distress were 7.00 (95% CI = 5.41 - 9.07) times more likely to have SMC than the non-distressed. The confirmatory sample also demonstrated the strong association of SMC with psychological distress rather than vascular risk factors.
Conclusions: In a large sample of middle-aged people without any history of major affective illness or stroke, psychological distress was strongly, and vascular risk factors only weakly, associated with SMC, although we cannot discount psychological distress acting as a mediator in any association between vascular risk factors and SMC. Given this, clinicians should be vigilant regarding the presence of an affective illness when assessing middle-aged patients presenting with memory problems.