Hear­ing is be­liev­ing: Speech may be a clue to Alzheimer’s dis­ease de­cline

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Marilynn Marchione

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.

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.

About 47 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide have de­men­tia, and Alzheimer’s is the most com­mon type. In the U.S., 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.

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