Worried about dementia? Hearing and language problems could be forerunners of cognitive decline

Scientists have traced the roots of dementia back to midlife, a time when hearing loss and changes in speech patterns may signal the onset of cognitive decline.

In research presented Monday at the Alzheimer’s Assn.’s annual international conference in London, investigators also reported that for people in their 80s, those who were admitted to a hospital for an urgent or emergency medical problem subsequently suffered more dramatic decline in mental functioning than their peers who checked into a hospital for an elective procedure or avoided the hospital altogether.

Collectively, the new research helps sketch a fuller picture both of who is at risk of cognitive decline and how early those processes probably begin. It suggests that even when a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia could be years away, factors detectable when a person is in her 50s and 60s may signal — or even contribute to — the disease process.

It also offers further evidence that certain behaviors, including vibrant intellectual and social engagement, offer some protection from the ravages of cognitive decline as we age.

In a University of Wisconsin study that tracks the cognitive health of more than 1,500 middle-aged adults, researchers selected a subset who had at least one parent with Alzheimer’s to investigate changes in speech patterns and what they might portend. All of these participants recorded at least two minute-long verbal descriptions of a picture, separated by at least two years.

The researchers focused on 64 participants whose test results over eight to 10 years led to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, a condition that often progresses into Alzheimer’s disease. Their average age was 60 years old.

The speech patterns of these participants differed in subtle but measurable ways from those of study subjects who were not diagnosed with MCI, the researchers found. They tended to use shorter, simpler…

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