A Graceful Gift of Brains: The Nun Study

April 29, 2009 at 9:28 pm 3 comments

imageOver the past 30 years, 678  Roman Catholic Nuns have offered a remarkable gift to our knowledge of successful aging: their brains.

In 1986, elderly members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame began participating in a study of aging.  They agreed to annual testing of their mental and physical functions, a variety of medical tests, and finally, the donation of their brain, upon their death… making them the largest brain-donor group in the world.

The nuns are a unique test group: for one thing, they’re women!  Most research studies have traditionally focused on males – but women typically live longer, and so make up the majority of the aging population. For that reason alone, the study is important.

But the Sisters provide a nearly ideal research group for other reasons: they all live very similar lifestyles to one another, eliminating a lot of potentially confusing factors. They don’t drink, they don’t smoke, and their life histories have been well documented, including their autobiographical writings from throughout their lives – information the researchers were given full access too.

Their ages have ranged from  75 to 106 (!) with an average of about 83 years, and during the study, their health has varied from highly functional even in advanced age, to severely disabled as young as in their 70s.

Check out this video for a fascinating look at their lives:

So what have we learned from the Nuns?

A lot!

For example: the more highly educated the nuns were, the fewer symptoms of cognitive decline they showed.   The nuns who showed a better grasp of language in early life were less prone to dementia, and those whose early writings revealed a positive emotional outlook tended to live longer than those who didn’t.

And then there’s the astounding Sister Mary, who at the advanced age of 101,  showed no signs or symptoms of mental frailty – but upon her death,  the autopsy of her brain revealed the structural changes usually associated with advanced Alzheimer’s.

What does this all mean to the rest of us?

On the whole, the nuns have remained remarkably healthy and well –   a brilliant example of aging successfully.  We could do worse than using them as a model!  But that doesn’t mean we have to go join a convent.

Here are a few take away points:

Tend to your cognitive reserve: Stay mentally active and engage in lifelong learning that keeps your mind challenged.

Tend to your emotional outlook: Long term depression, anxiety and stress are bad for the brain, while a positive outlook may have  a positive, protective effect on the brain.  The Sisters, of course, find a lot of their hope in their Faith – but we can find it in any variety of ways.

Stay socially engaged:  The School Sisters of Notre Dame live in a supportive social community, something other studies have shown is beneficial to the brain.

imageStay physically active: There are lots of studies out demonstrating the importance of physical activity to the brain… and if you watched the video, you saw a glimpse of one of the  exercise classes the nuns participate in – honestly, it looked kind of fun!

If you’d like to know more, the study’s director, Dr. David Snowdon (I the fellow in the video wearing the bizarre purple jacket!)  has written a book about it, called Aging with Grace. It’s available on Amazon, or you can read an  excerpt here: http://www.healthstudies.umn.edu/nunstudy/pdf/Aging_With_Grace_Excerpt.pdf

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About This Blog


A healthy mind and brain is key to a healthy, active life. Come along for the ride as we explore the basics of brain health, with topics including:
  • Physical Exercise
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  • Stress Management
  • Social Interaction
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Authored by Tori Deaux
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