U of T researchers have found a correlation in a Canadian woman’s diary entries and her cognitive decline due to Alzheimer’s, inviting further research into the change of language choice in older adults.

This yet unpublished study — presented at New Ways of Analyzing Variation 48 conference in October 2019 — analyzed 97 diaries by the late Vivian White, spanning from 1985–2016, an incredible 31 years of raw data. Paired with White’s medical records and her daughter Sheila White’s support, it’s possible to draw a timeline of Vivian’s health in comparison to her diary entries.

Katharina Pabst, a PhD candidate at U of T’s Department of Linguistics, spearheaded the research study, in collaboration with Professor Sali Tagliamonte, the Chair of the Department of Linguistics and co-author of the study.

Changes in language over time

One of the significant surface level language changes was subject omission, such as dropping the ‘I’ pronoun at the beginning of a sentence. This happens frequently in a diary writing style, which may include sentences sentence like “fed the squirrels.”

All the subject omissions or lack of omission were marked in 97 diaries, and a decreasing trend was noticed, according to data compiled with the help of two undergraduate research assistants, Khadija Jagani and Christopher Legerme.

Subject omission rates were stable for the first two thirds of the writing, but after Vivian started using ‘I’ more frequently in her diary, her family noticed a decline in her memory. When the diagnosis of mild cognitive decline was made, the rate had almost halved.

As the diagnosis moved into severe dementia, there was a drastic drop, culminating in a complete lack of subject omission in 2016, the year she passed away.

Tagliamonte noted to The Varsity that a drastic decline in cognition is common in Alzheimer’s, and this drop in subject omission correlates with medical records, representing Vivian’s decline through her sentence structures.

Research supported by Vivian’s daughter

While this wealth of data only comes from one person, further conversation with Sheila revealed that Vivian’s maternal grandfather also kept a diary for roughly 58 years. Throughout, he had consistent subject omission rates with no evidence of cognitive problems, unlike Vivian. This provided more verification for the theory that Alzheimer’s was associated with Vivian’s style changes.

This surprise find of another stack of diaries could not have occurred without a good relationship with Vivian’s family. Sheila was, and is, tremendously supportive of the research opportunities that her mother created, according to Tagliamonte.

“The family has asked us to always use her real name,” said Tagliamonte. “This is the kind of work [people in the real world] can relate to.”

However, as the findings are confined within a single family, further research is needed. More in-depth analyses of other diary collections, as well as interdisciplinary research on cognitive decline will create knowledge in computing, medicine, and linguistics, and also help families affected by dementia.

By sharing her mother’s story through this scientific study, Sheila hopes more people can offer something and participate in research. It’s something Vivian wanted, after all.

“This diary will be partly an aid to memory, partly a goal to make me accomplish more, & partly something else — perhaps an attempt to assure myself that my life has some significance?” wrote Vivian on March 23, 1985, at the age of 59.

Editor’s Note (November 18, 10:12 pm): The article has been updated to include Katharina Pabst, lead author of the study, and the names of two undergraduate students who assisted with the research.