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Speed of Speech, Rather Than Loss of Words, May Be an Early Indicator of Dementia

Years before they were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, subtle changes became apparent in the spoken and written words of public figures Ronald Reagan and Iris Murdoch. During non-scripted public speaking, the late President Reagan showed a significant reduction in the number of unique words he used and a notable increase in the use of fillers and non-specific nouns during conversations. In the case of Iris Murdoch, a renowned writer, her Alzheimer’s became apparent in examining her writing over the years, where her last novel showed that her vocabulary had dwindled, and her language usage became much more simplified.

Now, a new study looks at dwindling language and memory loss, examining other aspects of language that could denote memory decline. But first a note of optimism. Many believe that difficulty finding words could be the start of memory loss. But, if this happens to you, don’t despair, as trouble finding words often comes naturally with getting older. Researchers from the University of Toronto found that instead, speech speed could be a more important indicator of brain health than difficulty finding words. This means that while many older adults may be concerned about their need to pause to search for words, it may just be a normal part of aging, where the speed of speaking could be an early indicator of dementia.

Study Shows Speed of Speech Is a More Accurate Indicator of Brain Health

A recent study from the University of Toronto suggests that it’s the speed of speech that’s a more accurate indicator of brain health in older adults. The researchers asked 125 healthy adults, aged 18 to 90, to describe a scene in detail.

The task was a picture-naming game in which participants had to answer questions about pictures, while ignoring distracting words they heard through headphones. During this task, participants were shown images of everyday objects (such as a mop) while hearing an audio clip of a word that is either related in meaning (such as “broom” – which makes it harder to think of the picture’s name) or which sounds similar (such as “cop” – which can make it easier). Participants were recorded as they described two complex pictures for 60 seconds each. Recordings were then analyzed by artificial intelligence (AI) software to extract features such as speed of talking, duration of pauses between words, and the variety of words used.

Participants also completed a set of additional tests that measured concentration, thinking speed, and the ability to plan and carry out tasks. These were standard tests to assess mental abilities that tend to decline with age, as well as those that are linked to dementia risk.

Additional Findings from the Study

As described, researchers found that age-related decline in these assessments was closely linked to the pace of a person’s everyday speech. In other words, it wasn’t pausing to find words that had the strongest link to brain health but the speed of speech surrounding pauses.

This finding is significant because it:

  • emphasizes the potential of speech rate changes as a marker of cognitive health that could aid in identifying people at risk before more severe symptoms become apparent;
  • means that in many cases, while older adults may be concerned about their need to pause to search for words, this may just be a normal part of aging. However, slowing down normal speech, regardless of one’s pausing, may be a more important indicator of crucial brain health changes;
  • may lead to the development of new tools and interventions to detect cognitive decline as early as possible and help patients maintain their brain health as they age;
  • suggests that talking speed should be tested as part of standard cognitive assessments to help clinicians detect cognitive decline faster and help older adults support their brain health as they age.

AI Tools Are Being Developed to Use Speech and Language to Diagnose Potential Dementia

As you can see, problems with speech and language are some of the earliest indicators used to identify patients at risk of developing dementia. Using AI to test audio and speech processing can significantly improve diagnostic opportunities for dementia and help to spot early signs years before symptoms develop. These are some of the AI speech-analyzing diagnostic tools that are being developed and tested at this time:

  • The National Institute on Aging recently awarded a Columbia University post-doctoral researcher, Dr. Maryam Zolnoori, $1.2 million to develop and evaluate her speech processing algorithm, which uses AI to identify dementia. The AI-based tool recognizes markers for cognitive function in a patient’s speech, voice, and word choice, including differences in voice tone. The tool measures clarity in a patient’s voice and long silent pauses that can indicate memory loss.
  • CognoSpeak is another new AI tool that is being developed at the University of Sheffield in England that could also help assess the early signs of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia more quickly and efficiently before even visiting a doctor. It uses a virtual agent displayed on a screen to engage a patient in a conversation. It asks memory-probing questions inspired by those used in outpatient consultations and conducts cognitive tests, such as picture descriptions and verbal fluency tests. It also uses AI and speech technology to analyze language and speech patterns to look for signs of Alzheimer’s and other memory disorders.
  • Scientists at Boston University also developed an AI program that detects cognitive impairment accurately and efficiently from voice recordings. Their findings, based on almost two decades of research, were published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Hopefully, these and other applications will become available to help with early diagnosis of dementia in the near future!

If You Have a Loved One with Memory Loss, Be Sure to Plan Ahead

Do you or a loved one have Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or another neurodegenerative disease? If you have not done Incapacity Planning, Long-Term Care Planning, or Estate Planning (or had your Planning documents reviewed in the past three to five years), now is a good time to plan and get prepared.

Please contact us whenever you are ready to get started:

Northern Virginia Elder Law Attorney: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg, VA Elder Law Attorney: 540-479-1435
Rockville, MD Elder Law Attorney: 301-519-8041
Washington, DC Elder Law Attorney: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.