Speech Changes, Pauses May Be First Signs of Alzheimer's

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerSeptember 20, 2017

A recent study has found that changes in speech may be the first signs of Alzheimer’s. The study, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that people with known cognitive issues experience significant changes in speech when compared to those without cognitive decline. Researchers are hopeful that a speech analysis could be instrumental in early detection of dementia, leading to more treatment methods and a greater understanding of the disease.

Learn more about this study and how speech patterns may be a window into brain health.

What Speech Changes Mean for Brain Health

A new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison has found that using pauses and filler words may be an early indicator of cognitive decline.

In one of the largest studies ever done of brain health and speech analysis, researchers had participants describe a picture they were shown in taped session two years apart. They found that participants with early-stage mild cognitive impairment lacked verbal skills over those two years, more so than those who did not develop cognitive issues.

The study conducted the picture-description test on 400 people without cognitive issues and saw no change in verbal skills over the two year period. Then, they pulled 264 participants from the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention and found that those participants showed decline on content and fluency – using pronouns like “it” or “they” instead of specific words. Researchers also noticed it took longer for this group of participants to convey their ideas.

The study’s results were presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London. Sterling Johnson, study leader from the University of Wisconsin-Madison said, “What we’ve discovered here is there are aspects of language that are affected earlier than we thought.”

Researchers caution that a lot of people have trouble recalling names as they age – and that does not necessarily signal signs of Alzheimer’s.

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

Using Speech Analysis to Detect Early Signs of Alzheimer’s

Nearly 47 million people worldwide have dementia. With no cure in sight, doctors hope that early detection using methods like speech analysis will lead to earlier treatments.

Speech expert at Arizona State University, Julie List, says of the study, “Those are all indicators of struggling with that computational load that the brain has to conduct.” She supports using the test to identify early signs of the disease.

Researchers cannot estimate how much a test would cost for a single patient, but it would be relatively inexpensive. A doctor only needs a digital tape recorder and a computer program to analyze the results.

Maria Carrillo, chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, says that family doctors “can do a lot to help us if they knew what to look for.”

What do you think about using speech tests to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s? We’d love to hear your thoughts and/or any stories you would like to share in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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