Chronicling Decline From Inside

The surprising story told by our changing choice of words.

Last week I mentioned Dr. David Hilfiker's ongoing chronicles of how the world seems to him, and how he is able to express his experience of it, as his Alzheimer's disease progresses. Readers mentioned some interesting parallel examples.

One was a Radiolab program three years ago on how the word choice and sentence structure of Agatha Christie's (above) very late work, when compared with her early novels, demonstrated the progress of her dementia, which was not disclosed while she was alive. Thanks to reader PM for this. 

I have some doubts about the methodology explained in the first part of the Radiolab story. One of the assessment systems seems to treat simpler, sparer sentence structure as prima facie evidence of dementia, and anything rococo as a sign of healthier mental functioning. By this standard  any turgid passage of bureaucratese, or Spengler, might seem "smarter" than samples from the King James Bible ("In the beginning...") or the Gettysburg Address (" of the people, by the people, for the people"). But the part about Christie is convincing and fascinating. 

And according to a different study at University College, London, a similar pattern emerged in the last novel Iris Murdoch wrote before she died. 
The team found that, while the structure and grammar of Murdoch's writing remained roughly consistent throughout her career, her vocabulary had dwindled and her language simplified in her very last novel. This unique opportunity to study someone's writing style over their lifetime could help researchers improve current diagnostic tests for Alzheimer's.
So keep rolling out the baroque synonyms.

The other reader suggestion is a collection of columns from Michael Beetner, Avoid 1-Click Shopping if you have Parkinson's, about living with that disease. I have not read this -- nor yet, in my family, had immediate reason to do so -- but here is a plug by someone who has read and learned from it.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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