Latest News » How studying Ronald Reagan’s speeches found early clues for dementia, Alzheimer’s

A new analysis of Ronald Reagan transcripts links subtle changes in speech to his later Alzheimer's diagnosis.

A new analysis of Ronald Reagan transcripts links subtle changes in speech to his later Alzheimer's diagnosis.

You don't have to have voted in 1980 to know that, prior to winning election, Ronald Reagan's age was a serious talking point. And for good reason — at 69 years old that year, Reagan was and still is the oldest candidate to win a presidential election. But with that milestone came a slew of concerns raised about the incoming president's brain health, and whether anything from creeping instances of forgetfulness to a diagnosis of outright dementia could negatively impact his ability to lead. As Dr. Lawrence Altman writes in The New York Times, Reagan directly addressed those concerns by saying he would resign his position if, at any point in his presidency, doctors could pinpoint a decline in his mental state.

Of course, the former president was later diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994, six years after leaving office, but there were never any signs of it detected during his eight years in the White House. However, a new study examining some of the president's old speeches has found a few subtle but telltale clues that were there all along about his impending condition.

The researchers, Arizona State University speech professors Visar Berisha and Julie Liss, pored over transcripts of the 46 news conferences Reagan held during his two terms and compared them to transcripts of the 101 conferences held by his successor, George H.W. Bush. Using an algorithm that had originally been conceived for "analyz[ing] changes in writing by novelists," the pair were able to measure cognitive decline based on specific diction metrics.

"The researchers found no changes in the speaking patterns of Mr. Bush, who is not known to have developed Alzheimer's," writes Altman. "But in Mr. Reagan's speech, two measures — use of repetitive words and substituting nonspecific terms like "thing" for specific nouns — increased toward the end of Mr. Reagan's presidency, compared with its start. A third measure, his use of unique words, declined."

While these findings, published in The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, can't definitively prove that changes in speech are a precursor to dementia in a larger population, it does raise awareness of another potential red flag, especially since these changes would occur much earlier than a diagnosis of other symptoms. With no cure as of yet for dementia and Alzheimer's disease, early awareness of the condition is key to implementing the most effective treatments as early as possible. It remains to be seen whether a similar speech-based model could help predict weakening memory support and cognitive decline associated with other neurological conditions.

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