Prior brain health research has shown that intellectual engagement is associated with lower risk of dementia. Additionally, in the well-known “nun study” on aging and Alzheimer’s, linguistic analysis of autobiographical essays written by nuns in their 20s showed that lower risk of dementia was associated with the essays with the greatest linguistic complexity. Building on this research, a recent study looked specifically at whether there are associations between journal writing and late-life dementia risk. Not only did researchers look at the impact of the act of writing, they looked at whether specific features of the writing showed any associations with dementia risk.
The researchers recruited 221 individuals with an average age of 74, of whom 118 had written a journal regularly at some point in their lives. There were no significant age or education differences between journal writers and non-writers, although journal writers were more likely to be female.
Comparing journal writers to non-writers, the researchers found that having ever been a journal writer was associated with a 53 percent reduction of dementia risk, without consideration to the amount written or number of years that journals were kept. This association remained when researchers statistically adjusted for other demographic characteristics.
Of the journal writers, 66 were able to provide copies of their journals for linguistic analysis. The researchers analyzed the earliest available journals from each participant. Of this material, 25 percent had been written between ages 25 and 39, 18 percent was written between ages 40 and 59, 42 percent between 60 and 70 and 15 percent when 80 or better. The researchers then looked at specific features of the writing samples provided: percentage of 6+-letter words, percentage of numerals, percentage of unique words, writing mechanics, and words per sentence. Here they found that the percentage of 6+-letter words was associated with a 25 percent reduction in Alzheimer’s and dementia risk. None of the other features were significantly associated with decreased risk.
In addition to other personal benefits that journal writing can provide, this study led the researchers to conclude that such writing “could be a very inexpensive behavioral approach to promote cognitive health.”
Weyerman JJ, Rose C, and Norton MC. Personal journal keeping and linguistic complexity predict late-life dementia risk: the Cache County Journal Pilot Study. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (2017); 72(6): 991–995.