Using filler words when speaking may signal Alzheimer’s disease

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Currently, nearly six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), the most common form of dementia. By 2060, that number is expected to skyrocket to 14 million, warns the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there is are interventions that can help relieve its symptoms and slow its progression, especially if implemented early. Read on to find out which two verbal cues could tell you the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and why a new type of test could help screen for these early signs of cognitive decline.

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Much research suggests that language changes are an important indicator of Alzheimer’s disease in all its stages. “Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by progressively worsening deficits in several cognitive domains, including language,” explains a 2013 study published in the journal Clinical Interventions on Aging.

In fact, the researchers state that “impairment of language skills, or aphasia, has been suggested to have more clinical relevance than other domains, such as memory, orientation, and reasoning, in the progression of moderate stages.” in the severe stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the study. said. The researchers add that “language impairment is a significant problem in most patients as they progress through moderate to severe stages of the disease”, and say it is an “important feature” even in the early stages.

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Senior old man talking on landline phone
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Two verbal changes in particular are linked to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, as explained in a 2018 study published in the journal Frontiers of the neurosciences of aging. “What we discovered here is that there are aspects of language that are affected earlier than we thought,” said Sterling JohnsonPhD, one of the study authors from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In particular, the researchers found that people with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease who showed early signs of cognitive impairment were much more likely to use filler words such as “uh” or “uh” and to spice up their speech pauses. In the future, speech analysis tests that look for these particular patterns could help experts screen for signs of mild cognitive impairment while Alzheimer’s disease is still in its early stages.

Dementia Research
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The Wisconsin study was the largest study of speech analysis in relation to Alzheimer’s disease to date, the PA reports. To probe the link between language patterns and Alzheimer’s disease, the team conducted a picture description test on 400 subjects who had no known cognitive problems. Among this group, they observed no noticeable change in verbal skills over time.

They then tested 264 people on the Wisconsin Registry for the Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease, a study of people in their 50s and 60s, considered to be at higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease due to family history of the disease. Of these 264 people, 64 were already showing signs of early cognitive decline at the time of the test. The team observed that this group demonstrated reduced fluency in their language: they used more pauses, increased their use of filler words, and used more pronouns for objects, such as “it” or “they”, rather than to name the object specifically. They also tended to speak in shorter sentences and took longer to relay their thoughts than the control group.

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Not all changes in speech patterns will necessarily indicate cognitive impairment, and not all cognitive impairments lead to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Normal aging can cause slightly slower recall, which can lead to minor speech changes.

“In normal aging, it’s something that can come back to you later and it’s not going to disrupt the whole conversation,” said another study author. Kimberly MullerPhD, explained before the study was published at the Alzheimer’s Association international conference in London in 2017. “The difference here is that it’s more common over a short period of time.”

Talk to a doctor if you notice these types of persistent changes in your speech, especially if you think they’re getting worse over time or interrupting your ability to communicate effectively.


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