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  • Miriam Green

The Nun Study


If you are an Alzheimer’s researcher and you want to focus on how a person’s brain might be affected over time by specific behaviors, you should conduct a longitudinal study of a group of relatively similar individuals to see if you can find specific markers that may trigger or indicate the appearance of disease.

One of the first longitudinal studies of Alzheimer’s is the Nun Study, which began in 1986 and is on-going. The Nun Study followed 678 Catholic sisters 75 to 107 years of age who were members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame congregation, and who, upon their deaths, agreed to donate part of their brains to research. The sisters were administered a series of memory tests on an annual basis, and it was during one of these visits that the studies’ director, Dr. David Snowden of the University of Minnesota, discovered that the sisters had all written autobiographies upon entering the convent, many more than 50 years prior to the start of the study.

Findings from this study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, came out in 1996, when Snowden and his team realized that after evaluating the sisters’ autobiographies, they could predict with 92% accuracy which of the participants would likely develop Alzheimer’s.*

In this digital age, not many of us write journals or accounts of our lives. How important are our individual thoughts, embarrassing dreams or silly observations? What can they tell us about our future health?

The essays were evaluated based on grammatical complexity and idea density, or the average number of discrete ideas contained in every 10 written words.

Here is an example of a sentence bursting with ideas from one of the autobiographies:

“It was about a half hour before midnight between February 28 and 29 of the leap year 1912 when I began to live, and to die, as the third child of my mother, whose maiden name is Hilda Hoffman, and my father, Otto Schmidt...”

And here’s an example of less idea-rich sentence:

“I was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin on May 24, 1913, and was baptized in St. James Church...”

Sisters who scored within the lower third of the sample as a whole, as reflected in the second sentence, were 60 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than an individual who scored in the upper third of the sample range, and who wrote more complex and idea-dense sentences.

According to Snowden, findings based on this analysis showed that written linguistic performance—the study’s measure of cognitive ability in early life—“is a potent marker for cognitive problems, Alzheimer's disease, and brain lesions in late life.”**

And here’s another strange part of the study. At least one participant, Sister Mary, who at 100 years of age (when she was interviewed by Snowden in 1991) passed all the memory tests without difficulty, yet upon her death at 102, presented full blown Alzheimer’s in her brain sample.

How did Sister Mary beat Alzheimer’s? And how can we internalize the idea that what we do from our 20s onwards—the education we pursue, the way we write—will affect us in later life?

One plausible idea I have heard is that we can continue to develop our brains throughout our lifetime by engaging in intellectual activities. Despite some of the brain’s synapses being destroyed by Alzheimer’s, thereby cutting off access to particular memories and functions, we have the ability to make more synapses, more connections to specific information, bypassing in effect the diseased sections of our brain. Each individual neuron can form thousands of links with other neurons, giving a typical brain well over 100 trillion synapses, up to 1,000 trillion, by some estimates.***

The brain samples from the original Nun Study are still being scrutinized for relevance to Alzheimer’s research. A larger study, the Religious Orders Study of Rush University, based on Snowden’s work and begun in 1992, expands on the work of the Nun Study, with more than 1,350 participants from more than 40 religious orders. This, alongside the Rush Memory and Aging Project, with 1,850 lay participants, will continue to provide insights into Alzheimer's for years to come.****

So, teach yourself a new language, study something you love, get a second degree, take up painting, learn to play an instrument, challenge yourself!

Can developing a habit—or perhaps wearing one—forestall Alzheimer’s? Only time (and research) will tell.

Diet is also a factor in the prevention of Alzheimer’s. It is hard to separate truth from fake news when it comes to diet, but from what I’ve read and seen, my reaction is to try to increase the amount of plant-based food I eat—and inversely eat less animal-based products, including milk and cheeses. Here’s an alternative to a morning omelet.

Chickpea Flour Pancake

This is a surprisingly filling breakfast, especially when accompanied by a fresh green salad. The chickpea flour has a earthy piquant taste, and is enhanced by adding spices. Make the time for this breakfast for two. You’ll enjoy it.

makes two pancakes

½ cup chickpea flour

¼ cup almond milk

¼ cup water plus 2 Tbsp

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper to taste

¼ onion, chopped

½ red pepper, chopped

1 Tbsp olive oil (for frying)

Directions:

In a small frying pan, sauté garlic, onions and peppers. Let cool. Mix flour, liquids and spices together then add cooled vegetables. Pour half the mixture into an oiled pan, and cook on a medium flame until edges of pancake turn crispy and small bubbles form on the surface. Flip and cook for an additional few minutes.

* http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127211884

**https://www.nia.nih.gov/newsroom/1996/02/landmark-study-links-cognitive-ability-youth-alzheimers-disease-risk-later-life

*** http://www.human-memory.net/brain_neurons.html

**** http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-neurologists-who-fought-alzheimers-by-studying-nuns-brains

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