Almost 25 years ago, psychologist David Snowdon began an innovative investigation about who gets Alzheimer’s disease and why. Known as the “Nun Study,” researchers worked with 678 older Roman Catholic sisters who volunteered to let their cognitive, social, motor and other abilities be evaluated as they grew older. A majority even donated their brains for dissection following their deaths. Summaries of the research papers and updates on the current status of the study are available at But most fascinating is Snowdon’s captivating book Aging with Grace. It’s an older book, not the kind of news that normally appears in this space. But it’s worth reading how the author so skillfully reports his research and weaves this together with warm and moving stories of the dedicated, spiritual women who participated. All had dedicated their lives to helping and teaching others. They agreed to participate with hopes that this would help future generations better understand the aging process and live more fulfilling and productive lives. Some conclusions go far beyond Alzheimer’s and have relevance for coaches, counselors, leaders and others who interact with adults as they get older:

  • Consistent optimism and gratitude seem to prolong life and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. Habitual anger and hostility are known risk factors for heart disease. Depression is a risk factor for both heart disease and strokes. Preventing depression and strokes is a key to avoiding Alzheimer’s.
  • There are exceptions, of course, but nuns with a college degree had a better chance of surviving to old age, maintaining independence and resisting the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Building cognitive ability and a richer vocabulary in childhood may impact the brain in ways that protect against Alzheimer’s in late life.
  • Autopsies show that about one third of the sisters who had Alzheimer’s, including widespread brain damage, showed no symptoms.
  • The Nun Study did not measure this empirically but two additional issues apparently contribute to a long and healthy life: deep spirituality and membership in a supportive community. Emotional support, including listening and talking in a affirmative way, can slow the development of disabilities.


As a beginning college professor, I once taught a course about the psychology of learning. Even then we knew the ineffectiveness of students sitting in rows, passively taking notes, facing instructors who gave one-way presentations, often reading from their notes or from words projected onto screens. Sometimes I wonder if much has changed.

In a posting titled “The iSeminary Cometh” (April 23, 2010) Christianity Today magazine describes how theological education is changing as more classes are taught on line. Some of these courses differ little from traditional classes. Students sit passively in front of computers reading words or listening to monologues from professors. But increasingly, higher education (including seminaries) involves innovative learning principles. Once again this summer I’ll teach an on-line course in coaching, part of a fully accredited distance-learning PhD program in the Regent University School of Psychology and Counseling. This course demands more work from the professor and involves more student interaction and involvement than many in-class courses. My students and I interact together in real time on line and are in almost daily contact. Students continue to live in their communities, work at their jobs, and apply their learning in their work. Is this inferior education as some distance-learning critics insist?

Research will tell but some evidence suggests that on-line learning is superior to traditional classroom experiences. Superior or not, the tsunami of Internet technology and the realities of on-campus education costs is changing and probably improving the way we teach. Despite some holdouts, most institutions of higher education recognize this.

Certainly some distance learning is poor and simplistic. Established instructors may fear new technology and resist the ilearning movement. It is true that getting together with other learners can be useful. (At Regent, the Internet students meet on campus once a year to interact face-to-face). Some potential learners lack access to sophisticated technology but this is changing. Even now the more creative distance programs involve students and professors, working in partnerships but from their homes around the world.