Using fillers like “um” and “ah” and shorter sentences may not just reflect less fluency, but also very mild memory and thinking problems.

These speech problems could serve as an early signal for mental decline, potentially leading to Alzheimer’s disease later on, a new study from U.S. researchers warned.

Study Details

In the study, researchers had subjects describe an image they were shown within a two-year gap. People with early-phase mild cognitive impairment fared less well on specific verbal skills compared to those who did not develop memory 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 study lead author Sterling Johnson from University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This was different from the trouble in memory recall that some people may normally have during aging. In this study, it occurred more frequently in a short time, explained Kimberly Mueller, another lead researcher.

First, the team conducted the picture-and-description exam on 400 subjects without cognitive issues, seeing no change in verbal abilities over time.

They then tested 264 others enrolled in the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, which is a long-term study of people in their 50s to 60s and most of them being children of people who have Alzheimer’s. Sixty-four of them already exhibited signs of early decline or developed it in the following two years, based on neurological testing.

The next round of testing demonstrated that they declined on content and ideas expressed as well as in fluency, using pronouns such as “they” instead of particular names given to things. They also mouthed shorter sentences, as well as took longer to express themselves.

Similar Findings With Loss Of Hearing

The findings were discussed in London at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference.

A separate study by doctoral student Taylor Fields and colleagues made the same hints: hearing loss could also be a part of the mental-decline puzzle.

Involving 783 individuals from the same registry project, the research saw that participants who disclosed at the beginning of the study that they had been diagnosed with hearing impairment were over two times as likely to have mild cognitive decline in the following five years compared to people who didn’t have the hearing issue.

Dr. Rosa Sancho, who heads research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, had something to clarify.

“Not everyone with mild memory problems goes on to develop dementia,” she said in a statement. “So it will be interesting to see researchers explore whether these speech changes could help identify people who will go on to develop the condition.”

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