Archive for Wednesday, February 21, 1996


February 21, 1996


A KU scholar contributes to a profound study of Alzheimer's, the degenerative brain disease.

Young people with low language skills are at greater risk of being attacked by Alzheimer's disease later in life, says a new study of nuns involving a Kansas University researcher.

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

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

JAMA's article was drawn from the so-called Nun Study -- a massive federally funded investigation of Alzheimer's and aging that focuses on 700 members in the School Sisters of Notre Dame religious congregation.

Susan Kemper, KU professor of psychology and research associate at the KU Gerontology Center, 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 the nuns took their 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. It gradually robs victims of memory, reasoning power and ability to function.

David Snowdon, UK associate professor of preventive medicine and Nun Study director, said scientists did 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.

"That's what's most incredible about it-- this relationship between what they wrote in their 20s and what their brains looked like 60 years later," Snowdon said. "It's a disease process that's underlying this."

He said it was likely findings would be similar in men.

The study could indicate Alzheimer's impairs language ability when people are young. On the other hand, greater linguistic ability early in life might indicate a healthy brain resistant to Alzheimer's later on.

"It's a chicken-or-an-egg thing at this point," Snowdon said.

Kemper said a public policy implication of the study could be increased intervention programs for at-risk youth.

"It's speculative, but you might want to identify individuals at risk and help them develop some of these linguistic skills so as to strengthen the brain and make it more resistant to the disease process," she said.

The sisters were ideal for an Alzheimer's study because of their homogeneous adult lifestyles. Participants in the study are nonsmokers, drink little if any alcohol, have the same marital status and reproductive history, lived in similar houses, held similar jobs, ate similar food and had similar access to health care.

The Nun Study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, is unusual for another reason. The bulk of research in the past has been on white men.

Sisters involved in the research reside in St. Louis, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, Dallas and Canada.

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