Idea Density

Update: A report on the nun study. It’s interesting.

Women who scored poorly on measures of cognitive ability as young adults were found to be at higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and poor cognitive function in late life, according to a new report by researchers at the University of Kentucky. The ground-breaking study of nearly 100 nuns found that the complexity of the sisters’ writings as young women had a great deal to do with how they fared cognitively later in life. Of the nuns who died, 90 percent of those with Alzheimer’s disease confirmed at autopsy had low linguistic ability in early life, compared with only 13 percent in those without evidence of the disease.

And another.

Sister Nicolette’s autobiography, written when she was 20, was full of what Dr. Snowdon calls “idea density,” many thoughts woven into a small number of words, a trait correlating closely with nuns who later escaped Alzheimer’s. One sentence in Sister Nicolette’s essay, for example, reads, “After I finished the eighth grade in 1921 I desired to become an aspirant at Mankato but I myself did not have the courage to ask the permission of my parents so Sister Agreda did it in my stead and they readily gave their consent.” Compare that to the essay of another Mankato nun, who is in her late 90’s and has performed steadily worse on the memory tests. The nun, who sat quietly by a window the other day, wrote in her essay, “After I left school, I worked in the post-office.”

So all those people who try to claim that it’s actually better to be ignorant and incurious and that that’s why Bush is a better guy than Kerry, are not only being silly and anti-intellectual, they’re encouraging everyone to increase their risk of Alzheimer’s. So yaboosucks!

I know, I know. Don’t bother to say it. It’s chicken and egg, it’s causation and correlation. It’s not clear whether the cognitive ability and idea density are causative or just correlative, so it’s not clear whether anything we do deliberately will make any difference. I know. But still. It might. Why take that chance, hmmm?

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