Study: Dementia-Related Changes in Reagan's Speech while President

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Ronald Reagan/ Dirck Halstead Hulton Archive/ Getty Images.

Reagan's Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease

In a letter to the public dated November 5, 1994, former president Ronald Reagan announced he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. At the end of the letter, Reagan writes, "I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead."

Reagan and his family chose to go public with his diagnosis in hopes of bringing attention to the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease.

And his goal has certainly been met. Since its beginning in 1995, the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute (affiliated with the Alzheimer's Association) has raised significant research dollars and has increased awareness of the disease.

Recent News about Reagan

Although Ronald Reagan passed away in 2004 from complications of Alzheimer's disease, he recently was the subject of research conducted at Arizona State University.

Faculty members of the Department of Speech and Hearing Science analyzed Reagan's press conference transcripts- specifically the question and answer portions since they are non-scripted conversations that are documented word-for-word.

Why Study Reagan's Speech Patterns?

Here are the questions the researchers were trying to answer: Was there any evidence of dementia-related changes in Reagan's communication abilities while he was in office? If so, what were those changes?

And, why could this be helpful?

Reagan's last year of his presidency was 1988- six years prior to his announcement of the Alzheimer's diagnosis. Some have questioned if he could have been experiencing the very early effects of Alzheimer's while he was still president since research has repeatedly shown that changes in the brain's structure and size begin long before an Alzheimer's disease diagnosis (or that of another type of dementia) is made.

Cognitive changes, such as mild cognitive impairment, also may develop prior to an Alzheimer's diagnosis, although not all mild cognitive impairment progresses to Alzheimer's.

More about the Research Study

The researchers compared Reagan's speech patterns to those of George H.W. Bush, who served as president at a similar age. They did this by reviewing the transcripts of the press conference question and answer sections for the two presidents over the course of their presidencies. Researchers paid particularly close attention to the following:

1. Number of Unique Words

They counted how many different words were used by the presidents. Words that were from the same base word (for example, country and countries) were counted as one word.

2. Number of Filler Words and Non-specific Nouns

  • Researchers compared how many filler words were used during the press conferences by the presidents. The filler words they tracked include: "um", "well", "so", "basically", "actually", "literally" and "ah."
  • Non-specific nouns included any words with "thing" in it ("something", "anything").

    What Were the Results?

    Reagan's and Bush's speech patterns were different from each other, reflecting their different speaking styles and abilities. Thus, while the researchers noted the differences between the two presidents, they were more interested in if, and how, their speech patterns changed throughout their presidencies.

    After compiling the data, they found that overall, Bush's speech pattern remained fairly consistent throughout his time in office. However, when they looked at Reagan's patterns, they noted that his number of unique words declined significantly over the time that he was president, and the amount of filler words and non-specific nouns increased significantly during his time in office.

    In other words, a notable decline was detected in Reagan's speech and communication patterns while he was president.

    Why Is this Important?

    What does this mean? Did Reagan have Alzheimer's disease while he was president?

    A change in speech pattern doesn't necessarily mean that Reagan had Alzheimer's disease while he was in office. What it does mean, however, is that these communication changes were present long before his diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

    This is important because these changes may have been some of the early signs of Alzheimer's in President Reagan, and they may well serve as early warning signs for others.

    Why Is It Helpful to Identify Early Symptoms of Dementia?

    The authors of the study indicate that assessing communication patterns could facilitate a non-invasive way to assist in early identification of dementia. Early detection allows for early treatment and extra time for decision-making, among many other benefits.

    Tell Me More

    Source:

    Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.2015 Jan 1;45(3):959-63. Tracking discourse complexity preceding Alzheimer's disease diagnosis: a case study comparing the press conferences of presidents ronald reagan and george herbert walker bush. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25633673?dopt=Abstract

    PBS.org. November 5, 1994. Primary Resources: Alzheimer's Letter. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/primary-resources/reagan-alzheimers/

    The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library. Accessed April 12, 2015. President Reagan is Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease Post Presidency. http://www.reaganfoundation.org/details_t.aspx?p=RR1005NRL&h1=0&h2=0&sw=&lm=reagan&args_a=cms&args_b=10&argsb=N&tx=1210

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