A new analysis of subtle changes in former President Ronald Reagan’s speaking patterns during the 1980s suggests he had signs of dementia years before doctors diagnosed his Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.
The findings, published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease by researchers at Arizona State University, do not prove Reagan had dementia that would have affected his judgment during his two terms. But they do indicate alterations in speech one day might be used to predict Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions years before symptoms emerge, The New York Times
Reagan’s tendency to make contradictory statements, forget names and details of past events were frequently criticized by his political adversaries. But the new study is the first to suggest changes in his speech over time may have been a clue that he may have had early signs of dementia.
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For the new study, the Arizona researchers compared transcripts of all 46 news conferences. Reagan held to the 101 sessions former President George H. W. Bush held in his term.
The researchers found that Reagan’s tendency to repeat words and substitute nonspecific terms like “thing” for specific nouns increased toward the end of his presidency. His use of unique words also declined over time. The researchers found no changes in the speaking patterns of Bush.
Eric Reiman, director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, told The Times the “highly innovative” methods used by the researchers may eventually help “to further clarify the extent to which spoken-word changes are associated with normal aging or predictive of … Alzheimer’s disease.”
But the researchers acknowledged other factors — such as a decision to reduce the complexity of his speaking style, or the injury, surgery, and anesthesia from the assassination attempt made on him in 1981 — could also potentially account for the language changes they found.
Alzheimer’s experts note that sufferers often experience subtle changes — in speech, judgment, and decision making — that predate more obvious signs of dementia, such as serious memory loss and a decline in thinking ability.
Sometimes only close friends and family notice the slight changes, which may include an overreliance on simple words and commonly used phrases. But experts believe those subtle alterations may one day be used to diagnose dementia at its earliest stages, when drugs that can slow Alzheimer’s progression can be most effective.
The Arizona researchers now plan to conduct similar analyses of other presidents, as well as news conference transcripts of National Football League players known to have sustained head trauma, which has been tied to dementia.
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