RE: Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Mon May 07 2001 - 14:50:17 BST

  • Next message: Wade T.Smith: "RE: Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging"

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    Subject: RE: Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging
    Date: Mon, 7 May 2001 14:50:17 +0100 
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    .....and who said nuns don't make a positive contribution to society?

    Rather atypical group though for generalisating to the wider population


    > ----------
    > From: Wade T.Smith
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Monday, May 7, 2001 2:20 pm
    > To: memetics list
    > Subject: Fwd: Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging
    > I throw this at youse here because of the mention of 'idea density'
    > included, as well as the general interest of the study, and the
    > specificity of the subject group for this data- all important, IMHO, for
    > valid planning for memetic research.
    > - Wade
    > ****************
    > Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging
    > MANKATO, Minn., May 2 < A spiraling road slopes gently up to Good Counsel
    > Hill, where the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame perches
    > peacefully. Within its thick red brick walls are bright paintings of nuns
    > and children. Organ hymns waft from a circular chapel, and nuns attend
    > Mass and murmur rosaries under a white vaulted dome.
    > But this crucible of faith is also the site of an extraordinary
    > scientific experiment. For 15 years, elderly Catholic nuns here have had
    > their genes analyzed and balance and strength measured. They have been
    > tested on how many words they can remember minutes after reading them on
    > flashcards, how many animals they can name in a minute and whether they
    > can count coins correctly.
    > The autobiographical essays they wrote for their order in their 20's,
    > when they took their vows, have been scrutinized, their words plumbed for
    > meaning. And as they have died, their brains have been removed and
    > shipped in plastic tubs to a laboratory where they are analyzed and
    > stored in jars.
    > The experiment, called the Nun Study, is considered by experts on aging
    > to be one of the most innovative efforts to answer questions about who
    > gets Alzheimer's disease and why. And now in a new report it is offering
    > insight on a different subject < whether a positive emotional outlook
    > early in life can help people live longer.
    > "The Nun Study has certainly been pioneering," said Dr. Richard Suzman,
    > chief of demography and population epidemiology at the National Institute
    > on Aging. "It's helped change the paradigm about how people think about
    > aging and Alzheimer's disease."
    > By studying 678 nuns < at this convent and six others in the order, in
    > Connecticut, Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois < Dr.
    > David A. Snowdon, an epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky, and
    > colleagues have come up with tantalizing clues and provocative theories
    > over the years.
    > Their research has shown that folic acid may help stave off Alzheimer's
    > disease; that small, barely perceptible strokes may trigger some
    > dementia; and, in an especially striking finding, that early language
    > ability may be linked to lower risk of Alzheimer's because nuns who
    > packed more ideas into the sentences of their early autobiographies were
    > less likely to get Alzheimer's disease six decades later.
    > The new report, being published on Monday in The Journal of Personality
    > and Social Psychology, says nuns who expressed more positive emotions in
    > their autobiographies lived significantly longer < in some cases 10 years
    > longer < than those expressing fewer positive emotions.
    > "It's an important finding," Dr. Suzman said, "and I think it will lead
    > to lots of additional studies."
    > The nuns are ideal for scientific study because their stable, relatively
    > similar lives preclude certain factors from contributing to illness. They
    > do not smoke, hardly drink and do not experience physical changes related
    > to pregnancy. The School Sisters are white and eat in convent cafeterias,
    > and most were teachers in Catholic schools.
    > The study is also considered powerful because it has information from
    > several stages in its subjects' lives, including when they were too young
    > to manifest Alzheimer's or other diseases related to aging.
    > "I think the Nun Study is very important because it uses information
    > obtained about people before the period of illness," said Dr. Robert P.
    > Friedland, professor of neurology at Case Western Reserve University and
    > author of a study showing that people with Alzheimer's were, as young
    > adults, less mentally and physically active outside their jobs than
    > people without the disease. "So we know from the Nun Study and others
    > that Alzheimer's disease takes several decades to develop, and the
    > disease has many important effects on all aspects of a person's life."
    > All this has given Dr. Snowdon, author of a new book on the study called
    > "Aging With Grace" (Bantam), a rare window through which to examine why
    > some nuns thrive and others deteriorate so much they lose speech,
    > mobility and much of their memory. The differences show up even in nuns
    > with virtually identical backgrounds, even those who are biologically
    > related.
    > At 93, Sister Nicolette Welter still reads avidly, recently finishing a
    > biography of Bishop James Patrick Shannon. She knits, crochets, plays
    > rousing card games and, until a recent fall, was walking several miles a
    > day with no cane or walker.
    > But a younger sibling, Sister Mary Ursula, 92, shows clear Alzheimer's
    > symptoms, Dr. Snowdon said. Several times a day, Sister Nicolette feeds
    > and reads prayers to Sister Mary Ursula, who uses a wheelchair and can
    > hardly lift her head or gnarled hands.
    > The other day, Sister Nicolette prompted Sister Mary Ursula to remember
    > her age and birth date, but when Sister Nicolette asked if she recalled
    > when "Sister Julia told you to pick up the Kleenex people used after Mass
    > and you didn't want to," Sister Mary Ursula's eyes glazed, showing no
    > hint of recognition.
    > Another Welter sister, 87-year-old Sister Claverine, is still active and
    > clearheaded. A fourth sibling, Sister Mary Stella, died in 1996 at 80.
    > "I wouldn't have any idea why this happened to Mary Ursula," said Sister
    > Nicolette, "but I just feel like I'll keep my mental faculties."
    > Some of Dr. Snowdon's research suggests she might be right. Sister
    > Nicolette's autobiography, written when she was 20, was full of what Dr.
    > Snowdon calls "idea density," many thoughts woven into a small number of
    > words, a trait correlating closely with nuns who later escaped
    > Alzheimer's.
    > One sentence in Sister Nicolette's essay, for example, reads, "After I
    > finished the eighth grade in 1921 I desired to become an aspirant at
    > Mankato but I myself did not have the courage to ask the permission of my
    > parents so Sister Agreda did it in my stead and they readily gave their
    > consent."
    > Compare that to the essay of another Mankato nun, who is in her late 90's
    > and has performed steadily worse on the memory tests. The nun, who sat
    > quietly by a window the other day, wrote in her essay, "After I left
    > school, I worked in the post-office."
    > The Nun Study's latest published findings offer similarly provocative
    > ideas about how positive emotional state in early life may contribute to
    > living longer. Experts say linking positive emotions in the
    > autobiographies to longer life echoes other studies showing that
    > depression increases risk of cardiovascular disease and that people rated
    > as optimists on personality tests were more likely than pessimists to be
    > alive 30 years later.
    > The findings also raise questions like, What underlies the positive
    > emotions?
    > "How much of this is temperament?" Dr. Suzman said. "How much of it is
    > affected by life events and critical relationships with parents, friends,
    > teachers, peers?"
    > Overall, Dr. Snowdon says, the nuns live significantly longer than other
    > women. Of the 678 in the study, 295 are alive and are all 85 or older. In
    > the Mankato convent alone, there have been seven centenarians, many free
    > of dementia.
    > One is Sister Esther Boor, who at 106 speeds through the labyrinth of
    > halls with a royal blue walker, glazes ceramic nativity scenes for the
    > gift shop and pedals an exercise bike every day, her black veil flapping,
    > an orange towel draped over her legs for modesty.
    > "Sometimes I feel like I'm 150, but I just made up my mind I'm not going
    > to give up," said Sister Esther, who gives her exercise therapists yellow
    > notes with phrases from books she reads. "Think no evil, do no evil, hear
    > no evil," she wrote recently, "and you will never write a best-selling
    > novel."
    > Sister Esther's autobiographical essay, written 80 years ago, is
    > similarly upbeat, speaking fondly of her family and her decision to
    > become a nun.
    > Dr. Snowdon's condition that nuns donate their brains was a stumbling
    > block for some of the sisters.
    > "I had a hard time with it," said Sister Claverine, who delayed signing
    > up. "I had an image of myself being buried intact."
    > But Sister Rita Schwalbe, the convent's health administrator when the
    > study began, said she had told them that as nuns they had made "the
    > difficult decision not to have children. This is another way of giving
    > life."
    > Many nuns now see brain donation through a liturgical lens < or a
    > humorous one.
    > Sister Nicolette said: "After the resurrection, our bodies will be
    > perfect. We'll be so happy we won't care what happens to our brains."
    > And Sister Miriam Thissen, 89, said: "Que será será. After you're dead,
    > so what?"
    > After completing the cognitive and physical tests < including identifying
    > everyday objects and opening small doors with different latches < the
    > nuns get summaries of their results and can see if their performance has
    > changed.
    > "Every time I get out of there I feel like an idiot," said Sister Blanche
    > Becker, 88, who does crossword puzzles and reads Danielle Steel novels.
    > "Here I am of sound mind and body and I sit there and open and close
    > little doors and look at pictures and try to remember them all. But maybe
    > it's made me more tolerant of people with Alzheimer's. I am afraid of
    > what's going to happen to me, yes. How stupidly am I going to act? Will I
    > know people? How long will it take me to die?"
    > Dr. Snowdon, 48, has become unusually close to his subjects. He says that
    > when he was in Catholic school as a child, the nuns were more rigid and
    > strict than the warm, good-humored School Sisters he sees almost as
    > grandmothers. That relationship has made him acutely aware of sensitive
    > ethical issues, like how forthright to be with nuns who show slight signs
    > of Alzheimer's.
    > "Do we really want to tell these dear women who are having memory loss
    > that they are in the early phases of Alzheimer's, that they should start
    > taking something?" he asked.
    > Dr. Snowdon is quick to agree with other experts who say his conclusions
    > need to be corroborated by other studies. There are limitations to the
    > autobiographies, for instance, since the nuns knew a mother superior
    > would see their writing and therefore may not have been totally candid.
    > "He's pointed us in some directions," said Dr. Bill Thies, vice president
    > for medical and scientific affairs at the Alzheimer's Association, based
    > in Chicago, "but I think it's going to take a fair amount of work before
    > we start making public health recommendations about behaviors that will
    > prevent Alzheimer's."
    > Still, Dr. Snowdon hopes his study will encourage people to do things to
    > ward off the disease, like quit smoking and other stroke-causing
    > behaviors, and read to children to stimulate language development. His
    > current project involves analyzing old photographs of nuns for
    > personality clues in their face muscles to see if personality correlates
    > to Alzheimer's or longevity.
    > And, although he cannot prove it scientifically, he contends the nuns'
    > spirituality and community living helps them too.
    > "You don't necessarily have to join a church or join a convent," Dr.
    > Snowdon said. "But that love of other people, that caring, how good they
    > are to each other and patient, that's something all of us can do."
    > Several nuns agree.
    > "The science is important," Sister Miriam said. "But the science is
    > dictated by providence anyway."
    > Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company | Privacy Information
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    > distributed via the memetics list associated with the
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