Iris Murdoch, who was a notable British writer, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease after writing her last novel “Jackson’s Dilemma.” This novel disappointed many people who found it very different from her earlier work. It was only later that it was realized she wrote it at a time that the disease was disrupting her cognitive abilities.
Agatha Christie, the best-selling novelist of all time, was suspected of senility and possibly Alzheimer’s disease towards the end of her life but she was never diagnosed.
The English crime writer, P. D. James, was included in the analysis as a healthy control who aged normally.
The scientists analyzed the complete text of 15-20 novels by each author evaluating lexical and syntactic markers with computer programs. Their analysis of the results is highly technical and involves a lot of nuances related to the methods they employed and the variability they encountered. I will just report here their major findings.
They found trends in the works of Murdoch and Christie that indicated a major loss of vocabulary with a concomitant rise in repetition of fixed phrases and of content words within close distance. When they looked at the proportion of each word class over the entire length of the texts analyzed, they found a decrease in noun tokens that was compensated by an increase in the use of verb tokens. They also found a pronounced increase in the proportion of words identified in part-of-speech tagging as interjections and fillers. The work of the writer P.D. James in contrast displayed no significant changes in these parameters.
Thus the authors of the research were able to differentiate the disease-related linguistic decline (Murdoch and Christie) from the effects of healthy aging (James). Some of the changes in the case of Murdoch were more abrupt in the last years of her life when she entered the early phase of Alzheimer’s disease, whereas the changes observed in the work of Agatha Christie were more gradual.
The image people have of dementia is that which is mostly associated with individuals experiencing the advanced forms of these conditions. However this disease takes many years to develop and during the very early phases the symptoms that afflicted individuals experience are either non-existent or subtle. The interesting thing about this research is that the authors identified changes that were taking place when the impairment was not so great as to eliminate the ability to write, but were pervasive enough to affect it significantly. These findings also open the possibility to use the literary output of regular people (for example a blog or a diary) to perform linguistic analysis and identify long-term changes that could point to a developing cognitive impairment.
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