Talking fast linked to better brain health in old age

TORONTO, Ontario — It turns out that talking slowly and clearly may not be so great after all. Researchers from the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care and the University of Toronto have found that talking speed can serve as an important indicator of brain health – even more so than having a difficulty finding certain words in old age.

Study authors add this is one of the first studies to assess both the differences in natural speech and brain health among a group of healthy adults.

“Our results indicate that changes in general talking speed may reflect changes in the brain,” says Dr. Jed Meltzer, Baycrest’s Canada Research Chair in Interventional Cognitive Neuroscience and the lead author on this study, in a media release. “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.”

This project included 125 healthy volunteers (ages 18-90). Participants filled out three distinct assessments. The first test was a picture-naming game, in which they had to answer questions about pictures while ignoring distracting words heard through headphones. For instance, while looking at an image of a mop, participants might have to answer: “Does it end in ‘p’?” – all while simultaneously hearing the word “broom” as a distraction. This approach allowed researchers to test peoples’ capacity to recognize an image and recall the name.

Then, researchers recorded participants as they described two complex images. Each picture was on display for a total of 60 seconds. Next, language performances underwent an analysis using AI-based software, provided by Winterlight Labs. Study authors analyzed how fast each participant spoke and how much they paused.

Finally, the last test entailed participants completing standard tests aimed at assessing mental abilities known to decline with age and show a link to dementia risk. More specifically, executive function, which refers to the ability to manage conflicting information, stay focused, and avoid distractions.

Older women, friends laughing
Researchers have found that talking speed can serve as an important indicator of brain health (credit: University of Texas at Austin)

As researchers predicted, many cognitive skills showed a clear decline with age, such as word-finding speed. Surprisingly, however, while the ability to recognize a picture and recall its name both tended to deteriorate with age, this development did not show an association with a decline in other mental abilities. In other words, the amount and length of pauses participants needed to find the right words showed no link to brain health.

Instead, how fast participants could name pictures predicted how fast they spoke in general, and both of those factors showed a link to executive function. So, the results suggest it isn’t pausing to find words that shows the strongest link to brain health, but the speed of speech surrounding pauses.

Although plenty of older people understandably grow concerned about their need to pause to search for words, these findings suggest such issues are nothing more than a normal part of growing old. The slowing down of normal speech, though, independent of pausing, may be a much more important indicator of brain health changes.

Moving forward, researchers would like to conduct the same tests with a group of participants over several years in order to analyze if speed speech is truly predictive of brain health for individuals as they age. The results of such studies could serve as vital support for the development of tools for detecting cognitive decline as early as possible. This would help clinicians and doctors prescribe interventions to help older patients maintain or even improve their brain health and cognition.

The study is published in the journal Aging Neuropsychology and Cognition.

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John Anderer

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  1. I hate people who talk fast … talking fast has always been a synonym
    for being a liar and cheater. If you want to actually communicate instead
    of just baffle people, talk slowly and clearly, and don’t worry about your
    brain health – there’s a lot of better things to do for your brain, like
    eating right and living a healthy lifestyle.

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