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How you speak could indicate risk of dementia, scientists say

Researchers from the University of Toronto found that speech speed could be a more important indicator of brain health

Vishwam Sankaran
Thursday 29 February 2024 09:29 GMT
Related video: Yet Another Study Links Dementia to Air Pollution

Talking speed can be an indicator of brain health, according to a new study which points to a link between dementia and the decline in one’s pace of speech.

Researchers from the University of Toronto found that speech speed could be a more important indicator of brain health than difficulty finding words, which happens as people age.

The findings 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, scientists said.

“Our results indicate that changes in general talking speed may reflect changes in the brain,” study co-author Jed Meltzer said.

“This 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,” Dr Meltzer added.

The findings, however, are correlational and may not indicate that training to speak faster would have impacts on brain health in older people.

Wendy Williams aphasia, dementia diagnosis

In the research, 125 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 90 completed three different assessments.

One of the tests was a picture-naming game in which participants had to answer questions about pictures while ignoring distracting words they heard through headphones.

Citing an example, scientists said that when looking at a picture of a mop, a participant might be asked, “Does it end in ‘p’?” while hearing the word “broom” as a distraction.

The test helped test their ability to recognise what the picture was and to recall its name.

In another assessment, participants were recorded as they described two complex pictures for 60 seconds each, and an AI-based software was used to analyse their language performance.

The final test included standard tests to assess mental abilities that tend to decline with age and are linked to dementia risk.

These included assessments to check executive function, which is the ability to manage conflicting information, stay focused, and avoid distractions.

Many of the abilities appeared to decline with age, including word-finding speed.

Researchers also found that it wasn’t pausing to find words that had the strongest link to brain health, but the speed of speech surrounding pauses.

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.

However, slowing down normal speech, regardless of one’s pausing, may be a more important indicator of crucial brain health changes, scientists say.

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