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 www.nunstudy.org. 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.