Slowed speech patterns and increased use of placeholders such as “um” and “ah” could be one of the earliest signs of cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, according to new research. What’s more, these changes in fluency may occur before more noticeable signs of memory loss, which would make them an important part of early Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

The study is the largest ever to analyze the effects of speech on mental cognition, authors note. Changes in verbal fluency may be a sign of very mild memory and thinking problems, such as those associated with dementia -- these results suggest analyzing speech patterns could be a cheap and easy way to screen people at greatest risk for mental decline The Independent reported.

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“In normal ageing, it's something that may come back to you later and it's not going to disrupt the whole conversation,” said study leader, Kimberly Mueller, The Independent reported. “The difference here is, it is more frequent in a short period,” interferes with communication and gets worse over time.

For the study, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison tested the memory of 400 people without cognitive problems and 264 individuals who were part of the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, by measuring their ability to complete a picture-description test. These individuals are at increased risk of AD because they have a parent who was diagnosed with the disease.

The team noted small changes in the speech pattern of those who were experiencing very mild cognitive decline. For example, these individuals tended to use shorter sentences, paused more while speaking and said “um” and “ah”, and used more pronouns like “he” and “it” rather than names, The Independent reported.

What Does This Mean

Speech and memory problems are a normal sign of growing older, and the report suggested that only about 15-20 percent of individuals who experience these mild cognitive impairments actually went on to develop Alzheimer's disease. Still, these results suggest that people shouldn’t just brush off mild cognitive problems, especially when they are noticed by others or start to interfere with life quality.

Alzheimer’s disease is a specific form of dementia that can cause difficulties with memory, thinking, and even behavior, The Alzheimer’s Organization reported. Although there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, the symptoms can be treated.

Not everyone with speech changes will go on to develop the Alzheimer's, so it’s not clear whether identifying particular speech patterns will help researchers better identify those who will develop the disease and those who will not.

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