A large focus of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research is identifying early intervention strategies to decrease the risk and early onset of the disease. To test these strategies, the populations involved must benefit from the research. Many variables that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease have been identified in the scientific literature; however, more research is still required. One particular research study that was quite useful was the Nun Study, which suggested that “lower linguistic performance early in life [is correlated with] higher incidence of cognitive decline and conversion rates to AD late in life”. 

Photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash

The aim of this new study was “to test to what extent linguistic performance at a single time point can be utilized as a prognostic marker of conversion to AD.” The study used participant data from the Framingham Heart Study, comprising individuals who were healthy and cognitively normal at the time. A machine learning approach was applied to measure correlations in test scores and incidence risk. Data were obtained from participants completing a “cookie-theft” task (in which participants are to write a description of a picture showing pilfering of cookies), which is the most used picture description test to assess discourse in dementia subjects.

The study concluded that the language samples from cognitively normal individuals can determine the potential future onset of AD. Measures of language competency are related to one’s lifetime educational and occupational attainment (which can increase cognitive reserve). Those with higher cognitive reserves are more resilient to brain pathology. The study also detected a significant difference between those who were educated at a college level and those who were not. It was easier to “predict conversion” of AD onset among women rather than men, which means that “prodromal changes are more prominent in females than in males”. Some variables that were significant indicators for cognitive decline in dementia included repetitive speech, telegraphic speech, and agraphia. Dementia patients also made more writing errors. One of the limitations of the study was that it was conducted using a written version of the cookie-theft picture description task. Thus, a follow-up study that includes the spoken version of the cookie-theft picture description task could provide valuable insights into different dimensions of linguistic dysfunction.

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This post was written by Hibah Sehar