Language Skills And Alzheimer’s: More From The Nun Study

July 14, 2009 at 5:28 pm Leave a comment

image Our favorite nuns, the School Sisters of Notre Dame,  have been all over the news again lately, this time because of a study recently released by Johns Hopkins.

First, a little background…

In 1996,  research on the Sisters revealed that those  nuns who had more complex language skills in their 20’s had lower rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as they aged.   By analyzing essays the nuns had written when they joined the convent, researcher’s analyzed their early comfort and ability with language.   Comparing those language scores based on their youth with their cognitive function as aging adults revealed  something interesting: the nuns with higher language scores as young adults had a a lower risk of Alzheimer’s as they aged.

Fast forward to today:

In the June 8 edition of Neurology, the results of a more recent study was released:  at least some of the  some of the high-functioning, high-language scoring elderly nuns turned out to have the physical signs of Alzheimer’s in their brains – but few or no symptoms of failing minds.

In other words, their brains had the plaques,.tangles and damage typically associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and yet their minds appear to be completely functional and intact.  The women also appear to have larger than normal neurons – something noted in previous studies of men who also had  what’s being called “Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s”.

This particular study was small, and only looked at 38 of the nearly 700 nuns who have participated in the larger Sisters of Notre Dame neurological research, so the sample is too small for anything conclusive.  Still, it’s intriguing.

There’s  no definite explanation for the link between language skills and developing dementia.  It’s possible that these women’s brains were more complex to begin with, maybe because of a genetic advantage, and that their skill with language sprang from that advantage.

But  some experts believe that  the nuns who had developed early, strong language skills built up what’s known as a cognitive reserve:  a complex neural network that’s believed to allow the brain to compensate for damaged areas by routing around them.   Think of it as building up a muscle, which is then stronger and can better compensate for injury.

Though the idea of a cognitive reserve is still unproven, the possibility that  it  could provide protection against Alzheimer’s is promising, and the  evidence is piling up. Other research has shown that the more education a person has, the lower their risk of Alzheimer’s. There’s a similar connection between staying mentally active and reduced risk and severity of Alzheimer’s.    Many of the researcher’s involved in these sorts of studies believe it’s never too late to build a protective mental reserve –  so while we can’t jump in a time machine and work harder in creative writing class in college,  we *can* work to increase our vocabulary, reading, writing and speaking skills, no matter what our age.

At the least, it will stimulate the growth of new neural networks in our brain, and it may actually help our memories and wits stay sharp even at our most advanced age.

Entry filed under: Be Mentally Active. Tags: , , , , .

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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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Authored by Tori Deaux
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