NPR Reveals A Mystery Concerning Agatha Christie, Alzhiemer's
Undertaking an analysis of writing as a way to identify people who may have had Alzheimer’s? As someone who was trained to pursue a career in journalism, I find that concept intriguing – and a little scary since Alzheimer’s tends to run in my family. I wonder if the quality of my posts and emails will someday be the signal that my brain had succumbed to the corrosion of this terrible disease.
So here’s a little background on the research on writing and Alzheimer’s. In September 2009, I wrote a sharepost about findings from the Nun’s Study based on the analysis of autobiographies by 93 nuns. These autobiographies were written in their early 20s, prior to taking their vows. Lead research Dr. David Snowdon and his team from the University of Minnesota found a relationship between the grammatical complexity and idea density that each nun used in writing that early autobiography and the potential that she would develop Alzheimer’s in the later years of her life.
So where does Agatha Christie comes in? A June 1, 2010 story National Public Radio focused on a study about the great writer by Dr. Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University. His research, according to NPR reporters Jan Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, has been on “trying to see past the words on the page and into the psyche of the author. He makes concordances of different tests; basically, an alphabetical list of all the words and the contexts in which they appear in a text.”
Lancashire analyzed 16 novels that Christie had written over a span of more than 50 years. Computer analysis of the concordance allowed Lancashire to view the frequency of different words and the number of different words used in each text. “When Lancashire looked at the results for Christie’s 73rd novel, written when she was 81 years old, he saw something strange,” Abumrad and Krulwich reported. “Her use of words like ‘thing,’ ‘anything,’ ‘something,’ ‘nothing’ – terms that Lancashire classifies as ‘indefinite words’ – spiked.” During that same time period, the number of different words that Christie used dropped by 20 percent. Lancashire also noted that Christie’s 73rd book was entitled Elephants Can Remember and focused on a female novelist struggling with memory loss as she tries to help solve a past crime. Critics panned the book for containing errors and having a poor plot line.
Although Christie was never formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Abumrad and Krulwich did note that she described difficulty in concentration as she aged. Additionally, Christie’s friends described her fits of anger and inability to carry on conversations at this time.
I described Christie’s story to my father this morning. We both agreed that the research method seemed to make sense based on our experience with my mother. Dad remembered how Mom’s vocabulary evaporated as the Alzheimer’s increased. Mom had always been very good at describing different items, but as the disease took its hold, she was reduced to using words such as “thing”. Mom was never a writer (other than writing letters), but I’m sure if she had kept a journal, we would have seen a similar progression in her word choice and usage. And that progression is definitely a very sad “thing.”