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

| Tuesday, July 18, 2017, 12:16 a.m.

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.

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.

To see if speech analysis can find early signs, researchers first did the picture-description 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.

In the second round of tests , they declined faster on content (ideas they expressed) and fluency (the flow of speech and how many pauses and filler words they used.) They used more pronouns such as “it” or “they” instead of specific names for things, spoke in shorter sentences and took longer to convey what they had to say.

Another study at the conference on Monday, led by doctoral student Taylor Fields, hints that hearing loss may be another clue to possible mental decline. Family doctors “can do a lot to help us if they knew what to look for” to catch early signs of decline, said Maria Carrillo, the Alzheimer's Association's chief science officer. Hearing loss, verbal changes and other known risks such as sleep problems might warrant a referral to a neurologist for a dementia check, she said.

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