Sentence struggle may flag Alzheimer’s

CORNELL (US) — Older adults with early Alzheimer’s disease may find it especially difficult to not only grasp for the right word, but also to construct complex sentences.

The findings may shed light on the mechanisms of language decline and lead to techniques for early diagnosis and interventions for both healthy and cognitively impaired older adults.

“There is a distinct gap in the research on language decline in those with clinical and prodromal (early symptom) conditions,” says Barbara Lust, professor of human development at Cornell University.

“Several studies have raised the possibility that very early Alzheimer’s disease may be associated with deterioration in written language as seen in the works of popular authors such as Iris Murdoch.

“One unique contribution of our project is that we are looking at what is happening in spoken language. Another is that we are looking at sentence formation.”

For the study, Lust and colleagues compare language and cognitive abilities in three groups: healthy aging adults, adults with signs of mild cognitive impairment, and young college-aged controls.

Participants are asked to repeat a series of sentences that are experimentally designed and tested on the accuracy of their repetition. So far 40 participants have been tested and more are planned.

Preliminary results show that the declines found in language abilities may be separate from declines in overall cognition, for example, memory. Specifically, those with mild cognitive impairment show particular challenges not only with vocabulary, such as word-finding difficulties or word substitutions, but also in certain types of complex sentence formation.

The researchers also plan to compare their findings in older adults to language development in young children to better determine how language decline is likely to occur with older adults and people with Alzheimer’s disease relative to how language is first acquired.

Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology contributed to the study.

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