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Poor Linguistic Ability May Indicate Risk of Alzheimer's

A series of longitudinal studies done with nuns out of the University of Kentucky shows a significant relationship between linguistic ability early in life and the development of Alzheimer's later in life. Christie Nicholson reports

Back in the late 90s a team at the University of Kentucky performed a series of long-term studies on nuns. And these studies have uncovered some surprising clues for possible Alzheimer’s risk.

One of these studies, published in the Annals New York Academy of Sciences, found that poor linguistic ability early in life is associated with a risk of developing dementia later on.  

Researchers got their hands on archival autobiographical sketches written by 74 nuns, from Baltimore and Milwaukee, completed between ages 19 and 37 years. All died an average of 62 years after writing their sketches, and the nuns had agreed to donate their brains for study.

Here is what scientists found:   The number of ideas expressed in those autobiographies had a inverse association with the severity of dementia later in life. For instance in the sentence, “I was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on May 24, 1913, and was baptized in a church,” has seven ideas according to the researchers. Phrases like “I was born” and “I was baptized in church” all count toward what they call a measurement of “idea density.”

They found a strong association between those whose autobiographies had low idea density and presence of the Alzheimer-related tangles in the frontal, temporal or parietal lobe of the brain.  

Studies like this point to the possibility of detecting Alzheimer risk much earlier in life and may provide clues to the progression of the illness long before the more serious cognitive damage takes hold.

—Christie Nicholson

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