Good news on brain-aging from The Nun Study

Healthy Brains for a Lifetime

We really DON’T have to lose it as we age

by Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, A.C.T, MCC, SCAC
Reflections on Cognitive Impairment and Dementia Protection

Cognitive decline is NOT inevitable

A quick review before some data that will bring smiles to a lot of worried faces (especially for writers!):

There is still a lot to learn from School Sisters of Notre Dame “Nun” Study — the longitudinal scientific exploration of aging and Alzheimer’s disease originally funded by the National Institute on Aging.  Data, tissue, and genetic material collected in this landmark study will, no doubt, prove invaluable to a great many meta-studies long into the future.

Thanks to the Sisters’ unprecedented generosity of spirit, however, we now know a lot more about how the brain ages than we did, even a few years ago.  We also know more about dementia and what factors seem to be neuro-protective.

The oft-cited study centers on a group of a relatively homogeneous order of 678 Roman Catholic sisters (American, no drug use, little or no alcohol or tobacco, similar housing and reproductive histories, etc.) — which minimizes extraneous variables that may confound other similar research.

Along with, ultimately, hundreds of others in their order, a few brave nuns agreed to volunteer for a long-term study of aging and Alzheimer’s disease, hoping to provide evidence that might be used to teach the rest of us how to escape the worst ravages of this heartbreaking illness.

To repeat a comment from my last article [You don’t HAVE to lose it as you age: Moving Past Mind-Blips and “Senior Moments”]:

Upon autopsy, even some of the individuals discovered to have what used to be accepted as “positive Alzheimer’s identifiers” (senile plaques and neurofibrillary tangles), managed to escape the behavioral devastation of the disease.

Others had only recently begun to exhibit signs of mental decline in the year or two before their deaths (at 80 and beyond), despite brains that would have predicted a significantly earlier onset of dementia.

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About the Nun Study


The Nun Study is a unique resource for the study of brain diseases in the elderly. This far-sighted, detailed exploration of an aging community was begun in 1986 as a pilot study by David Snowdon, Ph.D., with his colleagues at the University of Minnesota – over 30 years ago now.

Using data collected from an order of nuns living in Mankato, Minnesota (the School Sisters of Notre Dame), they hoped to answer the following question:

“What factors in early, mid, and late life
increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
and other brain diseases such as stroke?”

With additional data from the 1990 expansion of the study to include six additional Notre Dame administrative centers (St. Louis, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, Dallas, and Wilton CT.), what is coming up in the analysis of the data is the answer to another, even more important question:

What factors in early, mid, and late life
seem to REDUCE the risk
of Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases?

They are also in the process of analyzing cognitive factors that seem to determine longevity as well as quality of life.

As disclosed on the original Study’s website, currently still available in archive,
there are 678 participating nuns.

When the study began, they were 75 to 102 years old, with an average age of  83.
To qualify, sisters had to be born before 1916.  Over 85 percent were teachers.

  • They represented a wide range of “oldsters” — from siblings in their 90s, highly functional with full-time jobs, to individuals twenty years younger who exhibited signs of severe cognitive disability, some bedridden, others barely able to communicate.
  • Each agreed to participate in yearly assessments of cognitive and physical functionality, including medical exams with blood sampling to supply data for genetic and nutritional studies.
  • They all agreed to donate their brains after their deaths, to be autopsied for neuropathologic studies.
  • In addition, they granted full and ongoing access to the convent archives for data to help determine, “accurate risk factor data spanning the entire lifespan of the participants.”

The archives include “baptismal records, birth certificates, socioeconomic characteristics of the family, education documentation, autobiographies written in early, mid, and late life, as well as residential, social, and occupational data describing their mid and late lives.”

“The convent archives are particularly useful . . . because they contain . . . accurate information on early and mid-life risk factors [that is] difficult or impossible to obtain in most other studies on Alzheimer’s disease because individuals with this memory disorder cannot accurately recall their history.”

So what have we learned?

As I mentioned in my prior article on healthy brain aging, other than the fact that biology doesn’t HAVE to be destiny, science is still not exactly sure how well the data will apply to the population at large.

  • There is a great deal of speculation, and a few conflicting theories.
  • There is ALSO quite a bit of agreement over what is likely to be helpful
    — even though we’re not exactly sure why just yet.

We need to take a much closer look at what’s going on up there in our brains to be able to understand what goes wrong when our minds start to deteriorate — AS WELL AS conclusive data on how we can keep them healthy and vital as we age.

Theories and possibilities

Nun Study research has led to more than a few theories that seem to correlate with long-term brain health or decline — to possibly explain why some nuns thrived while others deteriorated appreciably, losing speech, mobility and much of their memory, even in siblings with practically identical backgrounds.

An example from the New York Times article on the study:

“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.  She  uses a wheelchair and can hardly lift her head or gnarled hands.”

Here are a few of their observations:

  • Alzheimer’s disease takes several decades to develop
  • It can effect varying aspects of a person’s mental and physical life
  • Small, barely perceptible strokes may trigger some dementia
  • Folic acid may help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Remaining physically active is extremely important, even if it means you get around in a wheelchair or with the assistance of a walker.
  • As discovered in other studies, remaining mentally active and engaged throughout life seems to be essential.

Robert P. Friedland, MD, a neurology researcher and professor (specializing in Alzheimer’s, Neuropsychology, Geriatrics and Behavioral Neurology) is the author of one of those other studies. He noted that people with Alzheimer’s were, as young adults, less mentally and physically active outside their jobs than people without the disease.

A few more basic take-aways:

In addition to what I’ve termed the The Great Eight Strategies for Brain Fitness (found half-way down in my prior article), the study authors discovered some other possibilities that might have accounted for what they observed in The Nun Study, which I have turned into suggestions:

  • Look on the bright side if you want to live a longer, healthier life. The nuns whose early diaries demonstrated a positive, hopeful emotional outlook early in life were generally more vital and lived longer than those whose did not.

Linking positive emotions in their autobiographies to longer life is consistent with 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.

  • Use your words — Good news for the writers who follow, the Nuns whose diaries contained longer, more complex sentences, with more complex thoughts and expressions, were sharper into their 90s than those journaling with more simple sentence structures expressing less detailed observations. (For the sake of your brain, give up tweeting and texting in favor of long-form blogging, perhaps?)

In other words, researchers found a correlation between low grammatical complexity in their writing and low “idea density” among Sisters who had Alzheimer’s disease.

An example of a low-density sample (found HERE):

“My father, Mr. L.M. Hallacher, was born in the city of Ross, County Cork, Ireland, and is now a sheet-metal worker in Eau Claire.”

And here is a higher-density sample:

“My father is an all-around man of trades, but his principal occupation is carpentry, which trade he had already begun before his marriage with my mother.”

  • Read to your kids and engage them in conversation. Early language ability may be linked to a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Nuns who packed more ideas into the sentences of their early autobiographies were less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease six decades later.
  • You’ve gotta’ have friends —  The School Sisters of Notre Dame lived most of their lives in a supportive social community, which is postulated to have contributed to their longevity.  As I disclosed in The Importance of Community to Health (from the Loneliness Epidemic Series), other studies have demonstrated similar findings in other population samplings — for both brain and body.
  • Know what you’re here to DO — The nuns had a strong sense of religious purpose, of course.  Have you figured out your purpose?  Are you living it?

MORE to come

The Cognition and Memory Series are ongoing – so stay tuned. If you will leave questions and comments below, I will shape the content to come so that I explore what you are most interested in learning about or understanding FIRST.

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LittleNun — JohnnyAutomatic from OpenClipArt

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MY SINCERE APOLOGIES to anyone who has already sent me an e-form expressing interest in this training without hearing a word in response. Following today’s e-glut weeding I located some email alerting me to the existence of blog feedback forms. I am SO sorry.

I will be getting in touch in the afternoon and early evening as I find additional form notifications — or you can leave me a comment below (using the same email address so I can use the e-search box for your contact details).

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There’s a lot to know, a lot here already, and a lot more to come – in this Series and in others.
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Related articles right here on
(in case you missed them above)

Other related Articles on

Related Articles around the ‘net
Organization’s Sites – info on Alzheimer’s and Healthy Aging
(see bottom of prior article for longer list)

BY THE WAY: Since is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

23 Responses to Good news on brain-aging from The Nun Study

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  9. Fascinating study. I found the mention of folic acid particularly interesting. I do suffer from a lack of it and take supplements every now and then. I know when it’s time to start them again because my brain starts feeling sluggish and I get migraines, which pass when I take folic acid. My physician believes it’s just the placebo effect at work but I’m not so sure. My skepticism seems to be supported by your mention.

    Liked by 1 person

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  13. Mary Smith says:

    I’ve heard of the nun study but not read much about it. Fascinating. Will read this again and look for more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve included tons of links – so start there. I’m sure you’ll find breadcrumbs as you go.

      Liked by 1 person

    • ~~~~~
      UPDATE: for anyone else reading – they seemed to have fixed it already! YEAH. (now if they’d just give me back my wasted hour!)
      For some reason (the dratted WordPress Gremlins, no doubt) – some of my links seem to be going to error pages – despite the fact that I “fixed” them again). Try back in a couple of days, maybe somebody will have found and fixed the consequences of their latest “improvements” by then! ::groan::

      Below IS the correct link for the prior article with The Great Eight (no promises this will work either!)
      You Don’t HAVE to Lose it as you Age

      I was able to search for it in the box at the top of my site, anyway, and it popped up at the top of the blogroll (along with some that had nothing to DO with the Nun Study – grrrrr)



  14. noelleg44 says:

    This is very encouraging, Madelyn!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Debbie says:

    Wow, another esceptional article from you, Madelyn. I learn so much from your blog.
    Looks like us bloggers are at least doing something write in alzheimer’s prevention.
    Just wondering, did those nuns cook without using aluminium utensils?
    (okay that might sound tongue in cheek but i believe aluminium pots and pans have been identified as a contributing factor to alzhheimers.

    Oh, and dont forget acupuncture. I have recently been privileged, through a visiting friend from Australia who has been practising Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for over 30 years, to visit the local TCM hospital in the town where I live. There is a neurology department, which apparently has much success in treating people who have had strokes etc. I dont have any data to share though, but I find it extremely interesting.

    thanks again. Hope you got lots of work done over the weekend and still had time to relax.xx Deb

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks – I love learning things like this. When I learn, I share (eventually ::grin::) I didn’t see any mention of cooking utensils in anything I read — but as old as they are, I’d guess they used cast iron. Nuns are frugal.

      Western medicine has pooh-poohed acupuncture forever because they don’t believe in the concept of chi and haven’t, to my knowledge, been able to explain how it might work. You can’t argue with the fact that it does work on so much, however. Placebo effect for a thousand years? Maybe. But I’m not aware of any studies either. I’ll have to put it on my list of things to investigate (in the non-pharm category, which has been neglected for a while now anyway). But it’s a long list, so don’t hold your breath!

      Meanwhile, I hope that you are planning to share your experience at the TCM Hospital in a blog post.

      A friend was in town and took me to dinner, so today hasn’t been ALL work – but I did get a ton of bitsy details that have been hanging out for far too long. Only a ton more to go! Hope you are having a great weekend.


  16. Pingback: You don’t HAVE to lose it as you age | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

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