Memory Mondays: Early Signs of Cognitive Decline May Include Speech

Changes in your speech may be one of many early signs of cognitive decline.

New research notes that more pauses, filler words and other verbal alterations can indicate whether you’re developing thinking problems, which may result in Alzheimer’s disease. The findings suggest there are aspects of language affected much earlier than previously believed, occurring prior to or simultaneously with memory difficulties, according Sterling Johnson, a study leader with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The study required that people describe a picture in instances two years apart. The participants with early-stage mild cognitive impairment struggled with certain verbal skills, especially as compared with those who didn’t encounter thinking issues.

But saying “um” and forgetting names shouldn’t be cause for immediate worry.

“In normal aging, it’s something that may come back to you later, and it’s not going to disrupt the whole conversation,” Kimberly Mueller, another study leader, told the Associated Press. “The difference here is, it is more frequent in a short period.” It also interferes with communication and gets worse over time, she noted.

The study was the largest of its kind on speech analysis as it relates to early signs of cognitive decline. With more testing for confirmation of the results, there may be a new and cheaper way to screen people for the initial stages of thinking troubles.

Given the prevalence of dementia, there’s been a tremendous push to pinpoint early signs of cognitive decline. Many doctors also believe treatment may need to begin earlier to prove effective.

The Findings

In an effort to evaluate speech analysis as a method of detecting early signs of cognitive decline, researchers first had 400 people without thinking problems describe the picture. They saw no change in the verbal skills of these participants after the two-year period.

Researchers then examined 264 people listed in the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, a long-running study of people in their 50s and 60s, many of whom may have a higher risk of the disease because they have a parent with Alzheimer’s. Of this group, 64 already displayed early signs of cognitive decline, or they developed signs over the following two years, according to additional neurological tests they underwent.

The second time this subset described the picture, they declined quickly on the ideas they expressed and their fluency. They relied more on pronouns than specific names, used shorter sentences and took more time to produce what they had to say.

Alan Sweet, a 72-year-old retiree, took the speech test in early July. His father had Alzheimer’s and his mother had a different form of dementia.

“Watching my parents decline into the awful world of dementia and being responsible for their medical care was the best and worst experience of my life,” he told the AP. “I want to help the researchers learn, furthering medical knowledge of treatment and ultimately, cure.”