Hear­ing is be­liev­ing: Speech may be a clue to men­tal de­cline

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

Your speech may, um, help re­veal if you’re uh ... de­vel­op­ing think­ing prob­lems. More pauses, filler words and other ver­bal changes might be an early sign of men­tal de­cline, which can lead to Alzheimer’s dis­ease, a study sug­gests. Re­searchers had peo­ple de­scribe a pic­ture they were shown in taped ses­sions two years apart. Those with early-stage mild cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment slid much faster on cer­tain ver­bal skills than those who didn’t de­velop think­ing prob­lems.

“What we’ve dis­cov­ered here is there are as­pects of lan­guage that are af­fected ear­lier than we thought,” be­fore or at the same time that mem­ory prob­lems emerge, said one study leader, Ster­ling John­son of the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son. This was the largest study ever done of speech anal­y­sis for this pur­pose, and if more test­ing con­firms its value, it might of­fer a sim­ple, cheap way to help screen peo­ple for very early signs of men­tal de­cline.

Don’t panic: Lots of peo­ple say “um” and have trou­ble quickly re­call­ing names as they age, and that doesn’t mean trou­ble is on the way. “In nor­mal ag­ing, it’s some­thing that may come back to you later and it’s not go­ing to dis­rupt the whole con­ver­sa­tion,” an­other study leader, Kimberly Mueller, ex­plained. “The dif­fer­ence here is, it is more fre­quent in a short pe­riod,” in­ter­feres with com­mu­ni­ca­tion and gets worse over time. The study was dis­cussed Mon­day at the Alzheimer’s As­so­ci­a­tion In­ter­na­tional Con­fer­ence in Lon­don.

In­di­ca­tors of strug­gle

About 47 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide have de­men­tia, and Alzheimer’s is the most com­mon type. In the US, about 5.5 mil­lion peo­ple have the dis­ease. Cur­rent drugs can’t slow or re­verse it, just ease symp­toms. Doc­tors think treat­ment might need to start sooner to do any good, so there’s a push to find early signs. Mild cog­ni­tive im­pair­ment causes changes that are no­tice­able to the per­son or oth­ers, but not enough to in­ter­fere with daily life. It doesn’t mean these folks will de­velop Alzheimer’s, but many do 15 to 20 per­cent per year.

To see if speech anal­y­sis can find early signs, re­searchers first did the pic­ture­descrip­tion test on 400 peo­ple without cog­ni­tive prob­lems and saw no change over time in ver­bal skills. Next, they tested 264 par­tic­i­pants in the Wis­con­sin Registry for Alzheimer’s Pre­ven­tion, a long-run­ning study of peo­ple in their 50s and 60s, most of whom have a par­ent with Alzheimer’s and might be at higher risk for the dis­ease them­selves. Of those, 64 al­ready had signs of early de­cline or de­vel­oped it over the next two years, ac­cord­ing to other neu­ro­log­i­cal tests they took. —AP

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