Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Language of Disease

By Tim Olds

What if doctors could diagnose disease by what you wrote on Facebook and Twitter?

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There are so many ways doctors can diagnose disease. They can take pictures of you inside and out; they can take samples of your blood, muscles, hair, fingernails, faeces, urine or saliva; they can measure your strength, flexibility, lung function and reflexes; they can swab your skin and your intimate cavities; they can even analyse your breath and your farts.

But what if they could diagnose disease by what you wrote, by your tweets and Facebook posts, by your letters and diaries, and even the essays you wrote as a child? A whole new branch of diagnostics and epidemiology has grown up around lexical analysis — the analysis of words.

In 1986, a Minnesota psychologist started an extraordinary investigation that became known as the Nun Study. It was a longitudinal study of ageing in 678 Roman Catholic nuns. They were an interesting group because they practised celibacy and avoided smoking and alcohol.

One of the most remarkable findings of the study came from an examination of autobiographical essays the sisters wrote when they started their novitiate, at an average age of 22. By looking at the “linguistic density” of these essays – which roughly means how many ideas are packed into a small number of words – the Minnesota researchers could predict how likely the nuns were to develop Alzheimer’s disease. More than 80% of the nuns who wrote low...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.