Archive for Saturday, August 17, 1996


August 17, 1996


Susan Kemper put her mind to a study that offers insight into a degenerative brain disease.

Kemper, a Kansas University professor of psychology and KU Gerontology Center research associate, contributed to a major investigation of Alzheimer's and aging.

The so-called Nun Study indicates young people with low language skills are at greater risk of being attacked by Alzheimer's later in life, she said.

A Journal of the American Medical Assn. report based on the study identified linguistic skill as a potent marker for predicting who'll get the progressive brain disease.

In addition, the article says Alzheimer's may be like hardening of the arteries. It could be a lifelong biological deterioration that becomes evident only when people age.

The report was drawn from a federally funded study focusing on 700 members in the School Sisters of Notre Dame religious congregation.

Kemper analyzed one-page autobiographies written by 104 nuns in terms of grammatical complexity and idea density.

The personal accounts of their lives had been placed in the order's archives just before taking vows, at an average age of 22.

Meanwhile, University of Kentucky colleagues tested the nuns' cognitive skills in old age. Brains of nuns who died were studied at UK's medical college to establish presence or absence of Alzheimer's.

Kemper said analysis of nuns' youthful writings indicated women with low linguistic ability in their 20s had a much higher risk of Alzheimer's when elderly.

"Our prediction isn't perfect," she said. "But, by and large, those with low grammatical density or low idea density developed Alzheimer's disease 60 years later."

Alzheimer's disease afflicts 4 million Americans. About 100,000 die of it annually. There are 35,000 victims in Kansas. The disease has no known cause, cure or reliable treatment

As part of the study, scientists performed autopsies on brains of 25 nuns who died, 10 of whom had Alzheimer's.

Ninety percent of nuns who developed Alzheimer's brain lesions exhibited a low linguistic ability in their autobiographies when young, compared with 13 percent among those who did not have Alzheimer's.

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