Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Can writing predict Alzheimer’s Disease?

Can writing samples predict who will develop Alzheimer’s Disease years later?

Yes, according to researchers from IBM.

IBM studied 80 men and women in their 70s, none of whom showed signs of Alzheimer’s.  They were asked to write about a drawing of a kitchen scene.  A boy stood on a wobbly stool, grabbing for cookies in an upper cabinet while a girl his age watched.  Nearby a woman, with her back to the children, washed dishes, not seeming to realize that the boy was in danger or that water from the kitchen sink was overflowing.

To describe the scene, some of the subjects wrote simple phrases such as “washing dishes” and “stool tipping ove.”  Others wrote longer phrases such as “Mother washing dishes” and “water overflowing in sink.”  Still others wrote complete sentences, such as “He is standing on a stool and is almost falling over” and “The water from the faucet is running over on to the floor.”

Seven and a half years later, half of the original subjects showed signs of Alzheimer’s while half did not.  Researchers studied the writings of years earlier, using an artificial intelligence (AI) program.  The earlier writing of those with Alzheimers showed several characteristics such as

  • Repetition in word usage
  • Incorrect spelling
  • Incorrect capitalization
  • Simple grammatical structures and missing words like “the,” “is,” and “are.”

The AI program with 75 percent accuracy identified who would develop Alzheimer’s based on the subjects’ earlier writings.  Results were recently published in The Lancet journal EClinicalMedicine.

With such knowledge, researchers hope those who will develop Alzheimer’s can be identified before the onset of the disease.  When drugs to combat Alzheimer’s become available, those people can be targeted to prevent the disease or to slow its progress.

Another study of writing and Alzheimer’s Disease considered Agatha Christie’s writing.  Researchers from the University of Toronto conducted a study of her writing and concluded she developed Alzheimer’s while she was still writing.  They based this conclusion on changes in Christie’s writing style as she aged.  They analyzed the variety of words she used and the number of indefinite nouns and phrases she used in each of her books from the time she was 28 to 82.

Researchers found that the vocabulary variety in her novels decreased by 15 to 30 percent while the repetition of phrases and indefinite words (something, anything) increased dramatically.  The largest changes showed in a book written in her 80s.

Another study of writing and Alzheimer’s is a study of nuns in Wisconsin.  When they were young (average age 22), they wrote their autobiographies.  After death, their brains were examined for Alzheimer’s disease.  Those women who had low idea density in their autobiographies all developed Alzheimer’s while none of those with high idea density did.  Idea density was a better predictor of Alzheimer’s in the nuns than was low grammar complexity.

Add these two mysteries to your reading bucket list

As a tutor, one way I help students is to read the books they are required to read in school.  Then we discuss and write about those books.  The student learns more about the books this way, I can develop writing topics for my students, and I can analyze gems to help me be a better writer.  Win–win–win.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.During the past week to help an eighth grader, I reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie.  In 2013 the Crime Writers’ Association in Britain named it the best crime novel ever, in part because it “contains one of the most celebrated plot twists in crime writing history.”  A similar group in the US named it number 13.

At the same time, for my own reading pleasure, I reread The Big Sleep  by Raymond Chandler.  In 1999, it was voted 96th of Le Monde‘s “100 Books of the Century.” It was included in Time magazine’s List of the 100 Best Novels” in 2005.

I like both books, but for different reasons.

I reread the Christie book to find out how she was able to hide the identity of the murderer until the last pages while having that character front and center throughout the telling of the story.  She gives subtle clues but on the whole stuns readers with the book’s ending.  Christie said she wrote this book to see if she could succeed at this twist in a plot line.  She did, brilliantly, though her characters, except for her debuting detective, Hercule Poirot, are easily forgotten.

I reread the Chandler book not remembering who the murderer is or even caring.  I read to enjoy the author’s style.  Detective Philip Marlow’s character, especially his sense of humor, is developed deliciously.  The author’s descriptions of settings are meticulous, each seeming to be a metaphor of the characters who inhabit them.  Tiny details like the doctor writing on a pad with attached carbon paper date the story, while other details like “a smile as wide as Wilshire Boulevard” anchor the story in Los Angeles.

Writers can learn from both authors.

From Christie we can learn how to plot a novel, especially a crime mystery.  We can learn to include light-heartedness—in the form of the narrator’s chatty sister, Caroline—in what otherwise is a humorless story.  We can learn that pivotal details must seem organic to the story, not pulled out of a magician’s hat, unlike the explanation for who made a crucial phone call to the doctor on the night of the murder.

From Chandler we can learn how to develop memorable, quirky characters.  We can learn how to write metaphors and similes which reveal character but which are also in keeping with the personality of the person thinking them.  We can learn to use witty, flirting dialog.  We can learn how to make a setting—in this case 1930s LA—almost a character.

Since Chandler’s novels rely on sex in their plots and in their chauvinistic development of women characters, his books might not be suitable for eighth graders.  Christie’s, on the other hand, are suitable for almost all ages.  If you have a bucket list of books to read—for pleasure or to hone your craft—add The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Big Sleep to the top.  You will thank me.