Brain Farts No Reason To Worry — But How Fast You Speak May Indicate Trouble

As we age, it’s normal to occasionally grasp for common words that seem to be on the tip of our tongues. New research from Baycrest Hospital and the University of Toronto suggests these frustrating “senior moments” are a typical part of aging, rather than a sign of cognitive decline or dementia. More importantly, the study found that overall talking speed is a better indicator of brain health than difficulties finding words.

The study, published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, tested 125 healthy adults between ages 18-90. Participants completed three different tasks: a picture naming game, an analysis of natural speech patterns, and standard assessments of executive function. Executive function refers to mental skills like focus, organization, and managing distractions.

In the picture naming game, participants viewed images on a screen and answered questions about them, while hearing unrelated distractor words through headphones. This tested their ability to recognize objects and recall correct names under competitive conditions. As expected, speed and accuracy on this task declined with age.

However, when participants also described complex pictures out loud, age-related slowing of talking speed, not difficulties finding words, corresponded to executive function performance. Pauses in speech to search for words did not show the same link.

“Our results indicate that changes in general talking speed may reflect changes in the brain,” says lead author Dr. Jed Meltzer, Canada Research Chair in Interventional Cognitive Neuroscience at Baycrest, in a statement. “This suggests that talking speed should be tested as part of standard cognitive assessments to help clinicians detect cognitive decline faster.”

Memory loss from dementia or Alzheimer's disease or cognitive decline
Struggling to find the right words can often make people believe they’re on the road to dementia. But new research says these fears are generally overblown. A much better indicator of brain health is talking speed. (© pathdoc –

The Need for Early Indicators

Currently, mental status examinations focus heavily on memory and language accuracy. Significant impairment indicates likely dementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a frequent precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. But relying only on accuracy means issues may not be caught until later stages when disability is already evident.

Subtle early changes in talking speed when describing events could provide an important biomarker for cognitive decline and brain health years down the road. Just as concerning changes in blood pressure or cholesterol can flag heart health risks before disease develops, measuring speech flow could give doctors an earlier heads up about emerging neurodegeneration.

Pausing Briefly Is Normal At Any Age

Almost all healthy adults experience occasional word-finding fails, also known as “tip-of-the-tongue” instances. As this study suggests, brief halting in speech is typical at any age and on its own is not predictive of pathology or accelerated aging of the brain.

Instead, physicians and patients should be alert to slowing in speech flow around existing word-finding pauses. Tracking verbal velocity could be an early sign of issues with focus, information processing, and mental flexibility – the hallmarks of executive dysfunction.

Older man smiling and laughing with woman
If you notice changes in talking speed of an older loved one, it might be a good signal to have them screened for cognitive decline. (Photo by Unsplash+ in collaboration with Getty Image)

Next Steps Toward Early Intervention

Looking ahead, the research team hopes to conduct longer-term studies tracking individuals over several years. Repeatedly measuring speech samples would clarify whether declining speech rate does indeed predict later cognitive impairment and structural brain changes for specific people.

If talking speed proves to be a reliable early indicator, brief speech analyses could be integrated into standard cognitive screenings. Slowed test results could then cue more detailed functional and structural neuroimaging to identify those with high probability of ongoing pathology. Early identification would allow rapid intervention to support continued brain health through existing lifestyle, medication, and behavioral strategies.

Catching emerging cognitive changes sooner ultimately means more years of healthy independence for aging individuals. And identifying those at highest risk for dementia earlier maximizes their chances to participate in promising clinical trials of disease-modifying therapies now under development.

So the next time you find yourself fumbling for words, you can blame a generally slowing brain, not something more serious. But take heart: mental activity and exercise have been shown to build cognitive reserve. So keeping an engaged mind promises your best chance to keep words rapidly at the tip of your tongue well into your golden years.

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