Could changes in everyday speech help detect dementia risk?

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Research results reported at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2017 have provided clues about associations between cognitive status in older people and several behaviour and lifestyle factors, including verbal skill. 
Researchers at Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, studied whether people with very early memory declines also showed changes in their everyday speech. 
The researchers found that subtle changes in everyday speech, such as the use of short sentences, more pronouns, and pauses like “um” and “ah,” correlated with early Mild Cognitive Impairment (eMCI), which can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. 
In the study, researchers analysed two speech samples, taken two years apart, from 264 participants. Of these participants, 64 were identified as having eMCI based on cognitive testing over eight to 10 years. The speech samples were collected by asking the participants to describe a simple picture and averaged one minute in length.
Study participants with eMCI declined faster on two measures of speech: content and fluency. The content of their speech was less specific, with a higher proportion of pronouns to nouns (for example “she,” “it,” “them”). Their fluency was more disrupted (more hesitations, word repetitions, and filled pauses (“um,” “uh”)). Those with eMCI also used less complex syntax and shorter sentences, and took more time to express the same amount of content as the cognitively healthy group. 
Detection of dementia at the earliest stages has become a worldwide health priority because drug treatments, prevention strategies and other interventions will likely be more effective very early in the disease process, before extensive brain damage has occurred.
Dr James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society said: “Diagnosing dementia is challenging, as we don’t yet have a definitive test that can tell a doctor if someone has dementia, and symptoms often present differently in each individual. This study suggests that subtle changes in speech could be an early indicator of memory and thinking decline, but it didn’t look at whether people who experience these changes go on to be diagnosed with dementia.
“This early-stage research was conducted in a small number of people, but in future innovative tests like this could help to detect the early signs of dementia, which could lead to a more accurate and timely diagnosis.”