The conversation clue that signals cognitive decline

Have you ever had trouble finding the right word during a conversation? Most of us have. But if you’re an older adult, it can set off some alarms. You know what I mean…

You’re mid-sentence… it’s on the tip of our tongue… but you can’t remember what the thingamajig is called. We can see it and hear it — but spitting out that word can be elusive.

It’s frustrating and a little frightening because we start questioning our cognitive abilities.

Well, as it turns out, this kind of problem is NOT what we need to be worried about.

Not being able to come up with a word is not necessarily a reflection of overall cognitive decline, according to researchers.

But another change in your speech, they say, most likely is…

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What’s the real sign of cognitive decline?

Although many older adults are concerned about their need to pause to search for words, the results of a recent study suggest that this is just a normal part of aging.

On the other hand, the slowing down of normal speech, regardless of pausing, may be a more important indicator of changes to brain health.

This was revealed in a study performed by researchers at the University of Toronto, in partnership with Baycrest, an academic health sciences center providing a continuum of care for older adults.

In this study, 125 healthy volunteers aged 18 to 90 completed three different assessments.

In the first, they had to answer questions about pictures while ignoring distracting, irrelevant words heard through headphones.

For example, they were shown a picture of a mop and asked, “Does it end in ‘p’?” while also hearing the word “broom” as a distraction. In this way, researchers could test their ability to recognize a picture and recall its name.

Next, participants described two complex pictures for 60 seconds each and were recorded. Their language performance was analyzed using artificial intelligence-based software. One of the things researchers looked for was how fast each participant spoke, as well as how much they paused.

Finally, each participant completed standard tests that assessed executive function, which tends to decline with age. Executive function is the ability to manage conflicting information, stay focused and avoid distractions.

Slow talking can indicate cognitive decline

As expected, as age advanced, subjects were less and less able to recognize a picture and recall its name.

Surprisingly, though, this was not associated with a decline in other mental abilities.

However, the speed of their speech during the testing was clearly linked to brain health.

“Our results indicate that changes in general talking speed may reflect changes in the brain,” says Dr. Jed Meltzer, Baycrest’s Canada Research Chair in Interventional Cognitive Neuroscience and the lead author on this study.

“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.”

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Maintaining your talking speed up

Think about what happens when you sing a song.

You can’t just go along at your own pace. You need to keep up with the music.

There’s already lots of proof that singing in a community or church chorus can strengthen cognitive skills (besides being good for your emotional health!).

I sing in a community chorus that rehearses weekly, so I can attest to the value of having to learn new music, often in new languages, and to keep up with the music as it’s written.

I haven’t had brain scans done to prove that it’s improved my cognitive abilities, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it has!

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May I have a quick word? Study shows talking faster is linked to better brain health as we age — Eureka Alert

Cognitive components of aging-related increase in word-finding difficulty — Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.