|The Nun Study|
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In 1986 Dr. David Snowdon, an epidemiologist and professor in Neurology, embarked on a revolutionary scientific study involving 678 spirited Catholic nuns; the School Sisters of Notre Dame. An ongoing project, the Nun Study has come to represent some of the world's most significant research on ageing and Alzheimer's disease. The participants, ranging in age from 75 to 106, have allowed Dr. Snowdon access to their medical and personal records; and these bright, articulate and altruistic women have each further agreed to donate their brains to the study upon their deaths. In this editorial, we share a few of the most exciting findings gained through the study bringing promising news that will empower and enrich the lives of our senior citizens, people with Alzheimer's, their families and carers. The study's findings are bound to influence the way we think about Alzheimer's; its causes; and what can be done.
One of the primary questions the Nun Study attempts to answer is how pathology in the human brain relates to the expression of Alzheimer's symptoms. Today, it is known that plaques and tangles are the two most important pathological features of Alzheimer's disease. However, some stunning results from the Nun Study show that Alzheimer's is not a yes/no disease. Rather, it is a process... one that evolves over decades and through interacting with many other factors.
The study shows quite dramatically how pathology alone can often mislead. For example, approximately one third of the sisters whose brains were found to be riddled with Alzheimer's plagues and tangles at autopsy had shown no symptoms and scored normal results in all mental and physical tests while alive! Though the opposite result was true in other cases; such contradictory results show that there is much more to Alzheimer's than neurological changes in the brain alone.
It is increasingly clear from this study that many different factors influence our amazing brain and to thoroughly diagnose Alzheimer's is an incredibly complex undertaking; one that requires a combination of neurological tests, blood tests, brain scans and a comprehensive battery of psychological tests.
Diagnoses made without sufficient evidence can often lead to misdiagnoses and unnecessary suffering. Therefore, if there is any doubt, it is imperative that a reliable second opinion be obtained.
Interestingly, the Nun Study further reveals that more disabled sisters are particularly sensitive to the emotional tone of voice of the person carrying out the testing. This influence on results makes it crucial that anyone conducting Alzheimer's and dementia testing needs to emphasise the positive, and compliment the participant for his or her achievements.
The fascinating results revealed through the study to date are documented in David Snowdon's book Aging with Grace, where you will find one of the most precise, yet very simple and descriptive, definitions of plaques and tangles we have come across.
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