Former President Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994 — but did his speech patterns exhibit signs of early Alzheimer’s disease when he was still in office? (Photo: Corbis/Mark Reinstein)
Despite years of research, an effective method to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia has eluded the medical community. With early detection, many experts believe the progression of the diseases can be slowed or even prevented.
But a new study from researchers at Arizona State University suggests that an effective method of early detection may be on the horizon — and it involves analyzing the speaking patterns of the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994 and died in 2004.
The study results, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, tracked the speech patterns of Ronald Reagan and former president George H.W. Bush during their terms in office. Researchers discovered that Reagan exhibited subtle changes in speaking patterns during his presidency from 1981 to 1989 that are linked to the development of dementia.
Researchers Visar Berisha, PhD, and Julie Liss, PhD, found that Reagan’s speech included early signs of Alzheimer’s more frequently toward the end of his presidency — the use of repetitive words, substituting nonspecific terms such as “thing” for specific nouns, and a declining use of unique words. Meanwhile, Bush, who does not have a known Alzheimer’s diagnosis, did not show a change in speaking patterns during his time in office.
Reagan’s speech alterations were detected by an algorithm that analyzed both presidents’ press conferences for changes in language. Berisha tells Yahoo Health that his research was motivated mainly by the development of the technology, and not so much by an interest in Reagan. Rather, he and Liss chose the former president because it’s difficult to find someone with a known Alzheimer’s diagnosis who has given speeches that have been transcribed. They compared Reagan with Bush because they began their presidencies at a similar age and served in office a similar length of time.
Berisha and Liss based their research off of a previous study in which researchers analyzed the autobiographical essays written by nuns when they entered a convent and looked for long-term changes in the writing of those who later showed signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Berisha says he was surprised by how quickly the changes in Reagan’s speech were able to be detected. “Others have shown that changes in writing complexity can evolve over very long intervals — tens of years,” he says. “It was surprising that, by analyzing discourse rather than writing samples, similar changes were detectable over the course of two presidential terms.”
Early detection of Alzheimer’s is key, because “it seems that the future treatments are going to be effective in people where the disease can be detected very early,” says Alzheimer’s disease expert Oscar Lopez, MD, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh who was not involved in the new study. The disease can take up to 20 years to develop in the brain, making it vital that doctors catch it early.
Alzheimer’s has been so difficult to diagnose because scientists don’t know its cause, Lopez tells Yahoo Health. He does note, though, that neuroimaging techniques that help diagnose the disease have improved over the last 10 years, making him “cautiously optimistic” that a cure is near.
While it may seem like the methodology used on Reagan’s speech changes could work to detect early Alzheimer’s signs in a loved one, Berisha says the changes in overall speech patterns are “imperceptible” through day-to-day interactions. However, his research suggests that it may eventually be possible to use this algorithmic method in a doctor’s office: “Our goal is that one day we can develop health applications that automatically analyze speech and language biomarkers for disease onset or progression.”
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