Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Nuns and Dementia

This NPR article about the 'Nun Study' of dementia and Alzheimer's disease is extremely cool. The part that's especially fascinating is the discovery of the biographies that the "nuns" (technically not nuns, as stated in the article... not that I would know) wrote when they first entered the order at 18 and the use of the 'complexity' of the text in those articles to see if it correlated with development of the signs of dementia (as measured in their brains after they died). A very strong correlation was observed between increasingly complex writing---see the article for a rough statement of how this was measured (it was basically how densely ideas were packed, on average, into 10-word segments)---and the onset of features in the brain associated with Alzheimer's Disease and dementia.

By the way, I love the 'causation versus correlation' comment at the end of the article. :)

Now I'm very curious to see my writing analyzed in this way... Of course, one can train oneself to write in different ways---e.g., I strongly prefer simple, clear sentences for scientific exposition (clarity >> elegance). We'll see how much dementia I develop... ;)

Agatha Christie was also mentioned extensively in the article, but the Nun Study is cooler.

(Tip of the cap to Rachel Gray.)

Update (6/10/10): I checked: The idea density of my writing is actually pretty damned high. (Also, I took a look at the .ppt presentations of one of these people to get a better idea of how it's calculated, and short nuanced ideas---sub-sentences but not necessarily full sentences---are the type that score the highest, and in fact my writing style goes very strongly and specifically in that direction.) I put in 4 writing samples from recent stuff that I have done (2 examiner reports, one document containing 3 articles I just wrote for a newsletter---in a format reminiscent of my blogging style, and one research statement), and I ranged from 5.03 - 5.48. (The word numbers in the documents ranged roughly from 500 - 2000.) Unsurprisingly, the newsletter articles---the least technical of the four documents by leaps and bounds---scored the lowest. A really neat thing to do---though indubitably this has been done before---would be to take a cohort of children and examine how their writing density changes as they age.

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