Scientists Search Reagan’s Speech for Signs of Alzheimer’s
Former president Ronald Reagan is known for many things: “Reaganomics,” the War on Drugs, the end of the Cold War, surviving an assassination attempt, the Iran-Contra affair—a list of policies and events as long as it is impactful. But questions about Reagan’s cognitive state during his second term have plagued his legacy, ever since he revealed that he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.
Reagan left office in 1989, a full five years before officially being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Four White House doctors have attested that Reagan remained mentally fit throughout his presidency. Still, some people say that indications of his declining cognitive fitness were obvious, years before. In his 2011 memoir, Reagan’s son, Ron, suggested that his father did indeed display telltale signs of the condition while still in office.
Seeing Alzheimer’s signs in speech
Now, a new analysis of 46 news transcripts from Reagan’s presidential tenure has revealed that the conservative icon may indeed have been experiencing a small amount cognitive impairment in his final years as Commander in Chief.
Researchers from Arizona State University compared Reagan’s transcripts to 101 transcripts of George H.W. Bush; aiming to identify inconsistencies that might have signaled Reagan’s impending decline. Bush has not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and his transcripts were chosen to act as the study control because he was of comparable age to Reagan during his presidency, and because the two men occupied the Oval Office within the same decade.
News transcripts (as opposed to scripted speeches and formal addresses) were used because they offered a glimpse into the unscripted speaking abilities of each man. “Changes in some lexical features of language have been associated with the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” study authors explain.
Bush’s talking patterns remained consistent over time, according to the speech analysis algorithm used by researchers. Reagan’s speech patterns, on the other hand, saw some significant changes that could signal the impending onset of his condition.
Towards the tail end of his presidency, the initiator of the Reagan Revolution used more “conversational fillers” (ums, ahs, etc.) and nonspecific nouns (“things”) when he spoke. He also employed fewer unique words while making off-the-cuff comments.
It’s important to note that these changes were probably undetectable during day-to-day interactions with Reagan, and there is no way to determine whether he actually experienced cognitive troubles while serving as president.
Researchers hope their work will help pave the way for a simpler process of identifying Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages—perhaps even before the individual or their family notices a difference.
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