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.