When it comes Alzheimer's disease, early detection is key. When signs of the disease are detected early on, doctors may be able to slow or even prevent its progress. But it's difficult for doctors to pinpoint these early signs and symptoms because so many people who seek medical advice are already in the later stages of the disease.

Health experts don't have a time machine that will allow them to look back at the early signs of Alzheimer's patients, but they do have the next best thing: YouTube. Videos and transcripts of Ronald Reagan in particular — one of the most famous Americans to develop Alzheimer's in recent years — have given researchers a window into the early signs of the disease, signs that may help improve detection.

Researchers from Arizona State University have been analyzing the speaking patterns of the late president, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1994 and died in 2004. For the study, which was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers picked apart the speech patterns of Ronald Reagan and former President George H.W. Bush during their terms in office. They compared Reagan with Bush because both men began their presidencies at a similar age and both have a number of speeches that can be analyzed for speech pattern changes.

The research team used an algorithm to detect speech pattern changes; specifically, researchers noted the use of repetitive words, the substitution of generic terms (such as "thing") for specific nouns, and a declining use of unique words. They learned that well before his diagnosis, Reagan's speeches from 1981 to 1989 indicated that he was in the early stages of the disease, particularly during the end of his presidency. Bush, on the other hand, did not exhibit any of these speech pattern changes during his time in office.

The study isn't about whether or not Reagan was developing Alzheimer's while serving as president, but it is about learning how subtle changes in speech patterns can be used to identify patients who may develop the disease later on. Researchers are hoping that what they have learned will help doctors develop better tests for early detection. 

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Researchers are studying Ronald Reagan's speeches to develop early-warning tests for Alzheimer's disease.