Thursday, March 17, 2011

Aging With Grace, The Nun's Study, David Snowdon, Ph.D.

Aging With Grace is the assigned book for a portion of a sociology class I will be participating in over the next two weeks. The teacher of the class at the community college, has invited members of the adult learning division to come to classes and participate in discussions with her students. I have read newspapers reports about the Nun's Study for many years so the book held few surprises for me although it covered the many steps and iterations of the study which is ongoing. A great deal of valuable epidemiological and physiological information about Alzheimer's has come out of this study. The teaching nuns in several sister houses from Minneapolis to Baltimore and several cities in between, not only agreed to annual batteries of tests but they also agreed to allow their brains to be autopsied at their death. The later is the most remarkable part of the the study because evidence of Alzheimer's plaques and tangles in the brain can be correlated with the mental functioning, and, in fact with life histories because the sisterhood maintained very complete records.

What did they find? As many questions as answers. They found some brains with serious Alzheimer's evidence belonged to women who had no Alzheimer's symptoms even into their 80s and 90s, and they found women with full blown Alzheimer's symtpoms who had very little brain evidence. They found that having been read aloud to as children seemed to confer the ability to write complex sentences on their entrance essays and that those women had less disease later in life; but those also were usually the women with higher education, with multiple degrees. They did not find that any particular foods confered brain health. And much more. Dr. Snowdon writes for the layperson in this book. He points out how evidence shifts and that the many conflicting reports in general literature is rarely useful.

The only area he has apparently not considered about these women who generally live well over 70, is whether their stable and spiritual life style had an effect on both longevity and continued mental acuity. The nuns would have to be compared to a matched cohort [one thinks of the well known Framingham study] of people living "ordinary" lifes. I personally suspect their religious practices and the freedom from the complexities of typical family life are powerful factors. Most of us, of course, are not nuns and our lives have sets of emotional ups and downs their lives do not.

I will be curious not only how the teacher handles the classes but also what the students' input will be as well as what my peers' input will be. I think it is a good idea to let students interact with older people, especially if they are going to be socioogists and may well have clients who are older. As Snowdon, himself writes at the outset of the study, he was often surprised that the women belied his stereotypes of aging. There are a lot of sterotypes that need shattering.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful synopsis. We read about the studies involving nuns in my Epidemiology and Sociology classes at Georgetown University. I hadn't thought about them in a while. The book looks interesting. Dianne

Jonas said...

There's a nun, in her seventies, who has amazed at Hawaii's "Ironman" for over a decade. The very notion kinda blows my mind.


June -- I do hope you keep us informed on what you learn in this class. It is a fascinating look at women and aging from a spiritual standpoint. -- barbara

June Calender said...

I'd love to see that nun, Jonas. We kind of forget they're people too.

Thanks, Dianne. Yes, the studies go on, they keep adding new questions.

Barbara, I have a feeling I'll be the only one curious about the spiritual side. I've been interested in the studies being done with the Tibetan monks [in Wisconsin, I believe]. There's so much we don't know about both the bfain and about aging.

Jonas said...

"I'd love to see that nun, Jonas. We kind of forget they're people too."

Funny you should say that. When I was a kindergartner, I thought the nuns were angels...