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Speech May Be an Early Clue to Mental Decline

New research done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates that there are aspects of language that are affected earlier than thought, before or at the same time that memory problems begin to manifest. As one of the largest studies ever done on speech analysis for this purpose, the researchers had participants who were in their 50s and 60s (many of whom had a parent with Alzheimer's) describe a picture they were shown in taped sessions two years apart. Those who already had early-stage memory impairment or developed it over the two years had a much faster downward slide than those who initially had no thinking problems during the study time frame.

The speech patterns in those involved in the study who showed early signs of mental decline were typical of the kinds of things that many older individuals experience, such as, pauses, using "filler" words, using pronouns like "it" or "they" instead of actual names, using "um" too much or having a lot of trouble recalling names. These of themselves can just be signs of normal aging or having a bad day but they can indicate early onset of Alzheimer's disease or dementia when they start disrupting entire conversations on a frequent basis. Behavior such as this can be our first warning that our loved ones or ourselves may have a developing problem and it's time to seek help.

About 47 million people worldwide have dementia, and Alzheimer's is the most common form. In the U.S., about 5.5 million people have the disease. Current drugs don't seem to slow or reverse it but do ease the symptoms somewhat. Doctors think that treatment might need to start sooner to do any good, so there's a push to find early warning signs. Speech analysis research is one avenue being pursued to try and find those early signs.

Studies like this hold promise but we appear to have a long way to go to finding a cure or a therapy that can reverse much of the decline. Many of our aged clients have dementia or Alzheimer's and they require a special approach to their care. Understanding their speech patterns as they evolve in their disease is yet another way our caregivers can better assist in making our client's quality of life as positive as possible.

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