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Psychogeriatrics. 2011 Dec;11(4):205-11. doi: 10.1111/j.1479-8301.2011.00370.x. Epub 2011 Oct 27.

A figurative proverb test for dementia: rapid detection of disinhibition, excuse and confabulation, causing discommunication.

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Gunma University Graduate School of Health Sciences, Maebashi, Japan.



Communicative disability is regarded as a prominent symptom of demented patients, and many studies have been devoted to analyze deficits of lexical-semantic operations in demented patients. However, it is often observed that even patients with preserved lexical-semantic skills might fail in interactive social communication. Whereas social interaction requires pragmatic language skills, pragmatic language competencies in demented subjects have not been well understood. We propose here a brief stress-free test to detect pragmatic language deficits, focusing on non-literal understanding of figurative expression. We hypothesized that suppression of the literal interpretation was required for figurative language interpretation.


 We examined 69 demented subjects, 13 subjects with mild cognitive impairment and 61 healthy controls aged 65 years or more. The subjects were asked the meaning of a familiar proverb categorized as a figurative expression. The answers were analyzed based on five factors, and scored from 0 to 5. To consider the influence of cognitive inhibition on proverb comprehension, the scores of the Stroop Colour-Word Test were compared concerning correct and incorrect answers for each factor, respectively. Furthermore, the characteristics of answers were considered in the light of excuse and confabulation qualitatively.


The proverb comprehension scores gradually decreased significantly as dementia progressed. The literal interpretation of the proverb, which showed difficulties in figurative language comprehension, was related to disinhibition. The qualitative analysis showed that excuse and confabulation increased as the dementia stage progressed.


Deficits in cognitive inhibition partly explains the difficulties in interactive social communication in dementia. With qualitative analysis, asking the meaning of a proverb can be a brief test applied in a clinical setting to evaluate the stage of dementia, and to illustrate disinhibition, confabulation and excuse, which might cause discommunication and psychosocial maladjustment in demented patients.

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