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Recognizing Cognitive Decline

Tuesday May 12, 2015 - Jennifer Prell
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During the 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan faced a barrage of political backlash due to his age. As the oldest sitting president, Reagan was scrutinized for his absent-mindedness and tendency to forget names--behaviors often attributed to an older adult, but not one many wanted in the man running the United States of America. His opponents said he was not of sound mind, but recent research out of Arizona State University says something different. Findings published in The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease put to bed the rumors that Reagan’s condition, diagnosed in 1994, had affected his ability to make decisions while he was in office, but also uncovered information which can provide insight in recognizing cognitive decline today.


After digging through eight years of tapes from Reagan’s presidency, researchers found changes in his speech patterns that were linked to the development of dementia years before he was ever diagnosed. These tapes revealed that as President Reagan grew older, he used more non-descript nouns. The word “thing” became more prevalent in his vocabulary and he repeated himself more often than in the years before.


Because doctors have yet to develop a 100 percent reliable test for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, it’s important for older adults and their loved ones to be diligent about watching for early indicators. Earlier detection means more opportunity to fend off the debilitating effects of diseases that cause significant cognitive impairment. From this research, we’ve learned that we may be able to use speech as a tool to detect dementia as it begins to develop in our older family, friends and loved ones years before other symptoms are noticeable.


So what should you watch for? Crutch words like “thing,” one that Reagan used often, tend to take the place of specific names and ideas, which may be an indicator someone is losing their ability to recall those words. Relying heavily on memory aids (notes, electronic reminders), forgetting important dates and asking the same questions repeatedly show signs of significant memory loss as well. While watching for signs like these isn’t a failsafe way to detect dementia, if a loved one is experiencing noticeable changes in speech patterns, it’s important to see a doctor as soon as possible.


For a disease that has no known cure, it’s especially important to educate yourself on the warning signs. Early detection and management can help individuals retain cognitive abilities for months or years longer than they otherwise would have. Why not add speech patterns to our arsenal of tools for detecting memory issues early on?


Written by Bill Lowe, Chief Executive Officer of Chicagoland Methodist Senior Services 

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