A new Australian study has revealed that while people with Alzheimer’s disease are able to understand emotional words that describe feelings, those with other types of dementia are not.

The Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) study, published in the journal Neuropsychology this week, found that dementia affects a person’s ability to recognise the meaning of common emotional words such as ‘thrilled’ and ‘annoyed’.

Dr Sharpley Hsieh and NeuRA colleagues explored how people with different types of dementia comprehend words that describe feelings, like ‘doubt’ and ‘hopeful’. The team found that people with Alzheimer’s disease are the only group from the population with dementia who are able to understand these kinds of words.

“People use emotion words in everyday conversation and don’t realise it,” Dr Hsieh said.

“How often do we use sentences such as ‘I’m frustrated’ or ‘she’s impressed’? These are key words and you have to know them to understand a sentence.”

The study looked at people with semantic dementia – a type of frontotemporal dementia and the second most common dementia in people under 65 – behavioural-variant frontotemporal dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease and compared them to healthy people without any dementia.

Two tests were given. The first asked patients to couple feelings such as ‘anger’ with ‘fury’ or ‘remorse’; the second asked patients to associate words such as ‘terror’ in the right context such as ‘hiding’ or ‘playing’.

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease demonstrated the most successful level of comprehension across tests. Those with behavioural-variant frontotemporal dementia showed a mixed response depending on the test.

The study also confirmed that the participants with semantic dementia, who experience a severe loss of word and conceptual knowledge, had a severely affected comprehension.

“You can easily show a picture of a car to test this word, or a smiling face to show happiness,” he said.

“But feelings such as frustration or embarrassment are difficult to depict and so until now we haven’t been able to look at whether these concepts are lost in people with different dementias.”

Dr Hsieh said the study’s findings have important implications for people with dementia, their carers and families.

“Losing the concept of a toaster, for example, will impact upon a person’s quality of life, but the prevalence of words used to communicate feelings and emotion in our language must make the lack of understanding of these words so devastating for patients and their carers.”

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