Longer sentences as you age?

Study investigates whether conversational interaction style can indicate cognitive impairment

Seniors_for memory loss

It’s important to know if your mental ability is decreasing as you age.

A lot of money is being spent on sophisticated indicators of dementia. For example, research is increasingly focused on identifying Alzheimer’s disease at the mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, stage, or even earlier (the so-called pre-symptomatic stage). Those patients would then have early access to interventions and clinical trials with the latest treatments.

A pair of U-M researchers, while investigating older people with and without MCI, recently happened upon an observation that could help: the subjects with MCI were very chatty.

MCI is a stage between normal aging and dementia, and a person with MCI has a higher risk of developing dementia.

Principal investigator Hiroko Dodge, Ph.D., with co-investigator Oscar Ybarra, Ph.D., was doing a clinical trial that included daily one-on-one, 30-minute conversations with older people. Half of the people had MCI, and half did not.

This study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, aimed to determine whether these conversations would boost the subjects’ cognitive function and psychological well-being. Social isolation and loneliness are risk factors for developing dementia.

Oscar Ybarra, Ph.D.

Oscar Ybarra, Ph.D.

“The subjects were taking part in consistent social interactions for six weeks,” Ybarra said. “Some of the research assistants, who did not know whether the participants had MCI, started noticing that some participants weren’t really picking up on social cues.”

Dodge and Ybarra took notice of the observation, writing a new study to investigate the structure of those conversations. The study finds those with MCI used about 6 percent more words in a conversation than those without it.

“This could be due to several reasons,” said Dodge, a professor of neurology at the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “One is that people with MCI tend to lose time orientation, so they keep talking, and the interviewer has to interrupt when it’s time to say goodbye,” Dodge said.

Older people experiencing cognitive decline might also have to try several times to find the right word, and repeat their phrasing a few times to define what they’re trying to tell you and gain confidence in their word choices.

“Word count could be one of the early indicators of early stage MCI. If we could find early MCI cases using behavior biomarkers like this, it would be very cost-effective,” Dodge said.

Hiroko Dodge, Ph.D.

Hiroko Dodge, Ph.D.

A social cue like increased word counts is easier for the person’s family to notice and bring up at a doctor’s appointment, hopefully earlier in the process than other testing.

The group plans to continue their research into cognition and aging, including examining how older adults interact with each other in conversation.

“In the meantime, if you’re really concerned about any of your relatives, you should get them monitored and assessed,” said Ybarra, a U-M psychology professor.


He offers six tips to stay cognitively active as you age:

  1. Active and engaged social interaction that involves perspective taking
  2. Mental engagement with challenging, varied activities (and not necessarily computer games)
  3. Good quality sleep
  4. Heart healthy diet
  5. Physical exercise
  6. Reduction of stress

Take the next step:

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The Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center (MADC) was established at the University of Michigan Health System through affiliation with the Department of Neurology and aims to conduct and promote research on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders; ensure state-of-the-art care for individuals experiencing cognitive impairment or dementia; and enhance the public’s and health professionals’ understanding of dementia through education and outreach efforts. The infrastructure of the Center stems from a 20-year history as an NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.