Long-winded speech an '˜early warning sign' for Alzheimer's

Becoming long-winded in later life may be an early sign of mental difficulty that can lead to Alzheimer's, research suggests.

Scientist hope to develop the test to detect early changes. Picture: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz
Scientist hope to develop the test to detect early changes. Picture: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

Rambling speech could provide the first indication of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition marked by forgetfulness that pre-dates dementia, it is claimed.

US scientists conducted an experiment in which 24 healthy older individuals and 22 people with MCI were asked to create a sentence out of three words.

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Lead researcher Dr Janet Cohen Sherman, from Massachusetts General Hospital, said: “The MCIs are very long-winded.

“One significant difference is the mean length of utterance, how many words MCI subjects used versus healthy older – it was a very significant difference. MCIs almost tended to get lost along the way and had more difficulty connecting the three words and also difficulty remembering the three words.”

One example of the test was having to construct a sentence out of the words “stove, water and pot”.

A simple solution would be: “I filled the pot with water and put it on the stove.”

“The healthy older individuals could give us a very concise sentence with the three words, and so could the healthy young, but individuals with mild cognitive impairment struggled,” said Dr Sherman.

Dr Sherman hopes within five years to develop the test into a method of detecting early changes that are predictive of Alzheimer’s disease.

Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting, she said: “One of the greatest challenges right now in terms of Alzheimer’s disease is to detect changes very early on when they are still very subtle and to distinguish them from changes we know occur with normal ageing. To date there really haven’t been treatments that have been found effective to halt the disease.”

She stressed that it was the way a person’s speech patterns changed over time that was important.

Someone who had always rambled would not be considered at risk in the same way as a person who turned into a rambler.

Dr Sherman cited a previous study comparing the speech of Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush who were about the same age when they became US presidents. “Ronald Reagan started to have a decline in the number of unique words with repetitions of statements over time, whereas George HW Bush didn’t,” she said.