The Notre Dame "Nun Study"
The aging process can be brutal and Alzheimer’s disease is one the worst aspects.
Approximately 5.3 million Americans (44 million worldwide) have been diagnosed with this debilitating ailment, making it the 6th leading cause of death in the US.
With these figures in mind, it’s patently obvious why research in this area is so very important.
In 1986, David Snowdon, an epidemiologist from the University of Minnesota, who wanted to better understand the aging process, commenced one of the most compelling studies in this area performed to date.
678 participants from the Notre Dame convent in Mankato, MN took part in the “Nun Study”. The average age was 85 (ages 75 – 102) and 31% of the participants were already cognitively impaired.
For more than 16 years Snowdon painstakingly collected data on his subjects. This groundbreaking research not only shed light on Alzheimer’s but also gave us invaluable insight into the aging process. The findings were quite amazing. Snowdon stated in 2001 that “Aging is not the cause of health problems in old age, disease is the culprit.”
Sister Bernadette's Aging Process
In order to better understand the findings let’s take a look at Sister Bernadette. She was sharp as a tack. Her cognitive abilities were tested at 81, 83 & 84 and she showed no signs of the mental deterioration you would see with Alzheimer’s.
At the age of 85 Sister Bernadette passed away due to a heart attack. When an autopsy was performed on her brain, the researchers were surprised to find that it was riddled with the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
“It was as if her neocortex was resistant to destruction for some reason,” wrote David Snowdon “Sister Bernadette appears to have been what we, and others, have come to call an ‘escapee.’ Death had intervened before her symptoms had time to surface.”
Research estimates that ¼ of the population exhibit no sign of Alzheimer’s, yet they harbor the pathological criteria for the disease.
Aspects of the Aging Process Are Within Our Control
So outside of inherited characteristics, what did the researchers find?
Unsurprisingly, they noted that some of the aging process attributed to dementia is within our control. Those participants who had strong linguistic skills early in life were less likely to suffer from dementia.
Reading to your children to develop this muscle is something I encourage every parent to do.
Cardiovascular health is another area that affects dementia. Many people suffer small strokes that they don’t even know they had.
This can increase their chances of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. Another key point noted was physical exercise is of the utmost importance.
For me, the most interesting finding was the nuns who had the most positive outlook in their youthful writings tended to live longer. Some may have even avoided the ravages of this disease.
This once again points out the importance of positive thinking in our lives.
It is my goal to let people know that their present and future happiness is in their hands. No one has to accept living in a dark space. Afterall it really is heartening to see that making changes in this area of your life can keep you healthy into your golden years.
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