NEW YORK, AUG. 29 -- Detection of slight falters in speech that researchers say may be early indicators of Alzheimer's disease will allow doctors to stave off the disease's memory-wasting effects with early treatment.

Researchers at the American Psychological Association annual meeting today said studies have indicated early Alzheimer's patients have more difficulty recalling words and connecting thoughts than do healthy persons in control groups.

Alzheimer's, characterized by a slow degeneration of the brain, cannot be cured, but some drugs appear to stave off the effects of the disease if administered early enough.

Some of the first signs of the disease are confused speech and memory loss, researchers said, but victims often have lapsed into bizarre speech and behavior before they are diagnosed.

If doctors could distinguish Alzheimer's patients early enough, they would have a better chance at treating the disease, the researchers said.

"It's important to distinguish between age-related changes in language that occur with normal aging" and those changes that signify Alzheimer's, said Rhoda Au, a psy-

chologist in the neurology department at the Veteran's Administration Medical Center in Boston.

Researchers at the meeting said almost all people have problems recalling words and speaking clearly as they age.

But Au has helped devise a written test that studies indicate can help distinguish between patients with dementia, including Alzheimer's, and healthy elderly persons.

In the studies, dementia patients and a control group were asked to write a short story describing a picture.

The dementia patients had significantly more spelling and punctuation errors, often omitting letters from words.

Their stories also were less coherent and their thoughts did not connect logically, Au said.

In a separate study of verbal skills, which was conducted by psychologist Stephanie Portnoy at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, Alzheimer's patients had significantly more trouble recalling words than did a control group of elderly persons.

"They hesitated for up to two seconds, a noticeable hesitation," Portnoy said at the meeting.

However, she said, early Alzheimer's patients in her studies found it easier to communicate when talking about pleasant memories and subjects.

"In some topics they are more fluent," she said.

"If families could learn to get the patients on those topics, then it would enhance their self-esteem," she added.

Researchers pointed out, however, that it is currently impossible to accurately diagnose Alzheimer's disease because there are no clinical symptoms.

Only an autopsy on the brain after death can positively identify a victim of Alzheimer's disease.