If You Do This in Conversation, Get Checked for Dementia, Experts Say

This change in your speech patterns may tip you off to a dementia diagnosis.

Dementia can affect just about every area of your life, altering your ability to make decisions, partake in everyday activities, recall important memories, and communicate effectively. Though you may be able to still meaningfully engage in conversation in the early stages of dementia, experts warn that certain changes may gradually appear within your speech patterns. In fact, experts say there's one particular thing you may notice in conversation that could suggest a deeper problem—even when other symptoms have not yet revealed themselves. Read on to find out which conversational quirk may actually signal a dementia diagnosis, and the other ways that dementia can affect language—even in the early stages of the condition.

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If you begin putting words in the wrong order, it may be due to dementia.

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Every person with dementia will experience the condition differently. However, a 2018 study published in the journal Materia Sociomedica says that "difficulties related to communication are among the earliest symptoms of dementia" and "may precede other aspects of the cognitive decline." As the condition progresses, patients become more likely to experience changes to communication. "Language difficulties are a major problem for most patients with dementia, especially as the disease progresses and goes from moderate to severe stage," the team writes.

The Alzheimer's Society explains that in addition to other language disruptions, those with dementia may "use words that have no meaning, or that are jumbled up in the wrong order." As a result, those individuals may strain to form cohesive and meaningful sentences. This can occur rarely or regularly, depending on the severity of one's condition.

RELATED: 98 Percent of People With Alzheimer's Develop This Symptom First, Study Says.

You may notice these other language-related symptoms.

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Mixing up the order of words is one form of aphasia, which the Cleveland Clinic describes as language problems resulting from damage within the brain. Other forms of aphasia may present with different language-based symptoms, including not being able to find the right words, using an incorrect but related word, using broad descriptions rather than precise words, not finding any word at all, or reverting back to one's first language that was learned as a child.

Additionally, a dementia patient with aphasia may have difficulty with broad categories of communication, including comprehension, reading, spelling, writing, and math, says the Cleveland Clinic.

According to the health organization, roughly 180,000 Americans are newly diagnosed with aphasia each year. The National Aphasia Association estimates that two million Americans are currently living with the condition, though many of those cases have underlying causes other than dementia—most commonly stroke.

Speak with your doctor for an evaluation.

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Whether or not you suspect your language changes are the result of dementia, your first step should be to discuss your concerns with your doctor or medical team. "Imaging tests, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) may be ordered. These tests identify the cause and areas of the brain that are damaged," says the Cleveland Clinic.

From there, they may perform further testing or refer you to a speech pathologist. "Your physician may perform a basic language skills exam in which the patient is asked to carry on a conversation, name objects, answer questions, and follow instructions. If your physician suspects aphasia, the patient is usually referred to a speech-language pathologist for a comprehensive exam. This healthcare professional is specially trained in identifying and improving language and communication abilities," their experts write.

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These tips can help keep the conversation going.

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If someone in your life is showing signs of dementia-related aphasia, there are several things you can do to support them in communicating—and experts say it's well worth the effort. Helping a person with dementia continue to express themselves can significantly impact their health, happiness, and independence over time.

"​​Listen carefully to what the person is saying. Offer encouragement both verbally and non-verbally, for example by making eye contact and nodding. This 'active listening' can help improve communication," recommends the Alzheimer's Society. Their experts add that it's OK to ask someone to repeat themselves when you haven't fully understood their meaning. If the sentence is still not coming together clearly, "ask them to explain it in a different way. Listen and look out for clues," allowing them plenty of time to respond without interruption, which can further "break the pattern of communication."

And finally, because language problems can be particularly frustrating for the person experiencing them, the Alzheimer's Society recommends keeping the tone as light, positive, and good-humored as possible. While making it clear that you're not laughing at them, "try to laugh together about misunderstandings and mistakes. Humor can help to relieve tension and bring you closer together," their experts suggest.

RELATED: Doing This During Mid-Life Makes Your Dementia Risk Soar, Experts Say.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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