Dementia is a syndrome, or group of symptoms associated with the ongoing decline of the brain. It can lead to memory problems, behavioural changes and even difficulty with movement.

The condition is far more prevalent among older people, mainly affecting those over the age of 65. This can make it sometimes difficult to spot signs of dementia, as they can be confused with general age-related changes.

Now scientists have revealed one potential signifier of the condition that could appear during conversation. A new study has found that talking speed could indicate brain health.

A team from the University of Toronto and the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Canada discovered that speech speed could even be a more accurate display of brain health compared to difficulty finding words, which happens as people age.

Study co-author Dr Jed Meltzer explained: “Our results indicate that changes in general talking speed may reflect changes in the brain.

“This suggests that talking speed should be tested as part of standard cognitive assessments to help clinicians detect cognitive decline faster and help older adults support their brain health as they age.”

However, the findings were correlational rather than causal, meaning it may not be the case that training to speak faster would improve brain health.

As part of the study, which was published in Ageing, Neuropsychology and Cognition journal, 125 healthy volunteers aged between 18 and 90 completed three different assessments.

One of the assessments was a picture-naming game in which participants had to answer questions about pictures while ignoring distracting words they heard through headphones.

In another test, participants were recorded as they described two complex pictures for 60 seconds each. An AI-based software was used to analyse their language performance.

The final assessment was made up of standard tests to determine mental abilities that tend to decline with age and are linked to dementia risk.

These included assessments to check executive function, which is the ability to manage conflicting information, stay focused, and avoid distractions.

Many of these abilities appeared to worsen with age, including word-finding speed.

The team also discovered that it wasn’t pausing to find words that had the strongest link to brain health, but the speed of speech surrounding pauses.

This means that while many older adults may be concerned about their need to pause to search for words, it may just be a normal part of ageing.

But slowing down normal speech, regardless of pausing, may be a more “important indicator” of brain health changes, the scientists said

It is hoped that in future studies the research team will conduct the same tests with a group of participants over several years, to examine whether speed speech is truly predictive of brain health for individuals as they age.

A release from the Baycrest Centre said: “In turn, these results could support the development of tools to detect cognitive decline as early as possible, allowing clinicians to prescribe interventions to help patients maintain or even improve their brain health as they age.”

The NHS lists common signs of dementia as problems with:

  • Memory loss
  • Thinking speed
  • Mental sharpness and quickness
  • Language, such as using words incorrectly, or trouble speaking
  • Understanding
  • Judgement
  • Mood
  • Movement
  • Difficulties doing daily activities.

The symptoms of dementia usually become worse over time, and in the later stages people will not be able to take care of themselves and may lose their ability to communicate.

If you think you or someone you know is displaying signs of dementia you should speak to a GP.

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