The speech patterns of people could help determine whether they are developing a thinking problem. 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.
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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.
"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 on 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.
On the rise
The World Health Organisation says some 47.5 million people had dementia in 2015, and that number is rising rapidly as life expectancy increases and societies age.
The condition is incurable and there are few drugs that can alleviate the symptoms – which include declining memory, thinking, behaviour, navigational and spatial skills and the gradual loss of ability to perform everyday tasks.