Are Agatha Christie’s Novels a Way of Understanding Alzheimer’s Disease?

It sounds outlandish, but two researchers from the University of Toronto beg to differ, as Maclean’s Anne Kingston reported this week:

The sleuth-work in this case was revealed last month at the Rotman
Research Institute Conference held at Toronto’s Baycrest, a leading
research centre on aging. There, Ian Lancashire, an English professor
at the University of Toronto, and his colleague Graeme Hirst, from the
computer sciences faculty, presented an abstract of their ongoing
investigation of linguistic patterns in Christie’s novels. They
conclude the later novels reveal signs of encroaching Alzheimer’s. More
significantly, their study confirmed British neurologist Peter
Garrard’s 2004 analysis of three novels by Iris Murdoch, who was
afflicted with Alzheimer’s, which argued dementia’s onset could be
detected in written text “before anyone has the remotest suspicion of
any untoward intellectual decline.”

Lancashire initiated the project with Hirst last fall with literary,
not medical, motives: he needed data on linguistic patterns of older
writers for a book about how authorship is revealed in texts. He
believed Christie’s oeuvre, comprised of 85 meticulously plotted novels
and plays written over 53 years, offered great scope for investigation.
Though the author was never diagnosed with dementia, it’s speculated it
could have been responsible for her decline in her late 70s and the
muddled, meandering plots of her later novels. Also, the fact editors
were reluctant to interfere, with the exception of her last book, meant
the texts contained her imprint only.

Sixteen novels Christie wrote between the ages of 28 and 82 were analyzed by being put through a “computational-linguistic” screen to analyze vocabulary

and phrase repetition. What they found, according to Kingston, is that “use of indefinite nouns and the indefinite

article “thing” increased significantly over time, they found, as did

phrase repetition, while vocabulary declined by 15 to 30 per cent. The

most precipitous change occurs in Christie’s penultimate novel,

Elephants Can Remember, written when she was 81; it contained a 30 per

cent drop in vocabulary compared to her writing at age 63, 18 per cent

more repeated phrases, and a nearly threefold increase in indefinite


Some, understandably, remain skeptical that textual analysis will be helpful on a large scale, but Hirst believes the Internet might one day make that possible: “In time,

everyone will have 30 years of emails and blogs on their hard disk;

we’ll be able to do this kind of textual analysis for everyone.”

Freeman remains doubtful. “The linguistic quality of emails is often

lacking,” he says. In any case, it’s worth checking out the original poster (PDF alert) for further information.