Encouraging Early Literacy May Help Children Avoid Alzheimer's Later in Life

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Former First Lady Barbara Bush may have been (unknowingly) as much an advocate for the fight against Alzheimer's disease as she was for encouraging early literacy.

    Last week, I had the opportunity to hear Dr. David Snowdon, the author of "Aging with Grace: What the Nun Study Teaches Us About Leading Longer, Healthier, and More Meaningful Lives" during a special seminar at Texas A&M University's Bush Conference Center. During his speech, Dr. Snowdon detailed the findings of the Nun Study, a longitudinal study which followed 678 Catholic sisters, ages 75 or older at the study's inception, which started in 1986. One of his slides showed the former First Lady reading with children. "She may have been on to something," Dr. Snowdon told the audience.

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    Why? It turns out that crucial brain development when literacy skills are developed happens before the age of 18. In his study, Dr. Snowdon and his team of researchers analyzed autobiographies that 93 nuns from the study had written while in their early 20s, prior to taking their vows. The researchers 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.

    In his book, Dr. Snowdon described some of the hypothesis they tested using the autobiographies:

    -   Number of syllables - The researchers created a database of all of the words that were used in the nuns' autobiographies. An analysis confirmed that nuns that did not have Alzheimer's used multisyllabic words  (such as "generosity")while the sisters who more frequently used monosyllabic words (such as "cat") were more likely to develop Alzheimer's.

    -   Use of rarely used words - The researchers measured the frequency of rarely used words in the autobiographies using a database of 10,000 words that had been developed in 1921 (which would have been around the time when the nuns were girls or young adults). They found that common multisyllabic words were used by nuns who developed Alzheimer's as well as those who didn't. However, nuns who had healthy brains used words (such as "grandeur") that were rarely used during the early part of the 20th century. "This suggested that the healthy sisters had a richer vocabulary in early life and may have read a more diverse selection as children," Dr. Snowden wrote.

    In addition, Dr. Susan Kemper, a psycholinguist whose specialty is the impact of aging on language skills, joined this portion of the Nuns Study. She had previously found that idea density reflects language processing skills, which are associated with a person's education level, general knowledge, vocabulary and reading comprehension.  In analyzing the nuns' autobiographies, researchers found the following, according to Dr. Snowden: "An amazing 90 percent of the women with Alzheimer's disease had low idea density in their autobiographies, as compared to only 13 percent of the healthy sisters. This was a huge difference, and it suggested that within 85 to 90 percent accuracy, we could predict who would get Alzheimer's disease about sixty years later and who would not - simply by evaluating their autobiographies."

  • Based on Dr. Snowdon's work, I've come to believe that the greatest gift we can give our youngest generation is the gift of words -the love of language, especially through reading a wide range of intellectually stimulating works. That gift can not only help bring joy to the rest of their lives, but also may help these young children eventually avoid Alzheimer's disease. 

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Published On: September 17, 2009