What Nuns Are Teaching Us About Alzheimer’s

Over 30 years ago, one researcher chose a small group of nuns as subjects for a study on aging and brain deterioration. Through the years, the study has grown to include nearly 700 sisters across the United States and continues to reveal groundbreaking insights into the aging process and Alzheimer’s disease.What Nuns Are Teaching Us About Alzheimer's

Learn more about “The Nun Study” and what it is teaching us about Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The Nun Study

David Snowdon began studying nuns in Mankato, Minnesota, 31 years ago in 1986. Snowdon was hopeful that he could learn why the brain deteriorated with age in some people and not others.

The Nun Study,” as it quickly became known, grew to 678 sisters across the U.S. When the study began, the nuns ranged in age from 75-103 and included a wide range of health, with some functional and healthy and some severely disabled.

While nuns may not seem representative of the larger population, leading similar lifestyles free from excessive alcohol consumption and smoking, living and working in similar environments — and sharing a gender — made the nuns great study participants.

Because nuns share so many environmental variables, it eliminates variables that most studies have to consider when reaching conclusions. The nuns also had medical records that spanned throughout their entire lives, giving researchers unparalleled access to family and medical histories, education records, social and work information.

All of the sisters participated in annual bloodwork, cognitive assessments, medical exams and physical assessments throughout the study, and even agreed to brain donation at death for future research.

What Nuns Are Teaching Us About Alzheimer’s

Before taking their vows, the nuns each wrote an autobiographical statement, which gave researchers insight into their linguistic ability. Past research has indicated both oral and written linguistic ability is an indicator of cognitive ability and a high level of linguistic ability earlier in life may protect against cognitive decline in old age.

Snowdon then evaluated the sisters’ autobiographies to see if their linguistic ability could predict their risk of Alzheimer’s and related types of dementia.

He gathered the autobiographies almost 60 years after they were written, and then asked the nuns who were between the ages of 75-95 years old to participate in a cognitive assessment. He also obtained autopsy results from 14 nuns who had died during that time period.  He concluded that the sisters who demonstrated a low level of linguistic ability in their autobiographical statements had lower cognitive test scores later in their lives.

Researchers believe that this may mean the brain begins showing signs of deterioration very early in life, even 50-60 years before symptoms develop.

The Nun Study continues to yield fascinating results, giving us unique insight into the aging process.

Do you feel that this study will help researchers further understand the relationship between aging and cognitive disease? Share your thoughts about Alzheimer’s and aging with us in the comments below.

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Please leave your thoughts and comments

  • BellaTerra66

    All I know is this: I am 68 years old, and I’ve always had superior linguistic ability, but I am definitely terrified of dementia of any kind. I smoke, rarely drink, exercise daily, eat healthy, am just beginning to meditate daily — oh! and I am going back to college in the fall! I try not to think about dementia, which means, of course, that I think about it every day. The news medias have us terrified of dementia and have FOR YEARS prior. I would give almost anything if I didn’t have to live with this fear every single damned day of my life — everything else in my life is so very good. My grandmother didn’t live with this fear, and neither did my mother (who died in her early 90s, sharp as a tack). My generation is the first generation to have to spend our remaining years living with this fear — and I hate it. [I just reread this. Well, so much for my superior linguistic ability! LLLLLLLLLOOOOLLLLLLLLLL]

  • I’ve been following this study because the women in my family have been toppling like dominoes. Tick tock, tick tock … my Finnish great grandmother liked to read. She was fine to the end, but her end was at 85 after surgery to amputate her leg. It was a relief that she never recovered, never had to know or experience that horrible loss. She died with her dignity and never acquired dementia.

    My grandmother was sort of shallow, liked nice clothes and a pretty house. She was fine until ileostomy-related surgeries in her 80s; then she had a very slow decline. She was in such good physical shape she was a Zoomba, always moving, never knowing why. I visited weekly. ‘Nobody was home,’ but I got to give her a hug every time. I needed those hugs. I miss her terribly.

    My mother was not going to go down like her mother. Although she never graduated from high school, she considered herself an artist and an intellectual. The first inclination I had that something was wrong was when she sent me a book that upset me greatly; a phone conversation revealed she never read it. How many of those books WAS she reading?

    She was unhappily married, living in personal isolation (upstairs) in the remote north with few friends and about ten cold dark months per year. She was taking Benadryl at night, thinking she was killing two problems with one stone: allergy issues and insomnia. (Google the relationship between Benadryl and Alzheimer’s dementia. There is a connection.)

    I live many miles away, but I took note of everything she did and questioned everything. Knee replacement surgery was the final blow. (Google anesthesia and surgery.) My stepfather failed to tell her doctor she was having memory issues.

    Today she is a medicated zombie in a nursing home far away; that was my stepfather’s final vindictive act – to take her far out of family’s reach before he passed.

    My great grandmother, grandmother and mother all had high blood pressure. Coincidence? Is there a connection between bp meds and Alzheimer’s? I became gluten free vegan and my blood pressure RAPIDLY dropped to normal; I am on zero meds now – which was where I was headed because I believe OTC and prescription medications are part of the problem, as is alcohol and the garbage American diet.

    Yes, we need to be physically, socially and mentally active. But my friends who take every medication their doctors prescribe, submit to every surgery their surgeons recommend and drink to ease their stress are are already going down the tubes.

    Follow the money. Big Pharma is powerful and the medical profession sings their tune. Question and research everything.

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